Health Experts Challenge Industry’s Front-of-Package Nutrition Labeling

Citing evidence that shows notable deficiencies in the industry's latest food labeling system called Nutrition Keys, Yale University's Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., and Emory University's Jeffrey Koplan, M.D., M.P.H., challenge the industry's action in an article published in the June 23, 2011 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

In their "Perspective" piece, the authors note that even though the industry's action may seem positive at first glance by creating a single system with objective nutrition information, the approach is contrary to what research shows would be helpful to consumers. They say it also preemptively undermines the deliberations of the Food and Drug Administration and the Institute of Medicine, which are scheduled to release a report on food labeling in the fall.

The food industry announced its own nutrition labeling approach in January 2011. Brownell and Koplan argue that this action may have been taken to "lock in a system that would change food choices as little as possible and preempt the imposition of an alternative system that would be based on the available and relevant science."

Several front-of-pack labeling systems have already been scientifically developed, tested, and found helpful to consumers, including the "traffic-light" system developed in Britain in which red, green, and yellow symbols are used to show which foods might be eaten freely, in moderation, or sparingly. The traffic-light system is based on a nutrient profiling method that is used to determine which foods can be marketed to children in Britain and will be used in Australia as the basis for allowing health claims on food packages.

The authors assert that compared with the easy-to-understand traffic-light approach, the industry's Nutrition Keys system is too complex, with too many symbols, and may create confusion for consumers. The average shopper only examines a package for a few seconds before making a decision, hence it is concerning that the industry system presents numbers that many consumers may not understand, the % Daily Value. Further confusion may arise because a high score is considered good for some nutrients like fiber and bad for others such as saturated fat.

"Industry leaders who profess to be responsible partners in preventing and controlling the obesity epidemic have an opportunity now to reject this noncollaborative, premature approach and show good faith by awaiting the IOM report and endorsing the best evidence-based approach to front-of-package labeling," say the authors. Otherwise, Brownell and Koplan say, "industry may have proven itself untrustworthy again and raised the risk of what it wishes to avoid — government's exercising of its authority to mandate some types of labeling and to restrict others."