by Marion Nestle
Jan 25 2011

“Singing Kumbaya,” GMA/FMI displays preemptive label design

I listened in on the conference call at which the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute announced their new Nutrition Keys design for front-of-package labels.

My favorite comment: We are all “singing kumbaya” here.  Nutrition Keys, they said, was the result of a” monumental, historic effort” in which food companies “stepped up to the plate in a big way,” “with 100% support.”

Why did they go to all this trouble?  Because “A healthy consumer makes for a happy consumer.”

Kumbaya, indeed.

The real reason, as I explained yesterday, is to preempt the FDA’s front-of-package food labeling initiatives which might make food companies reveal more about the “negatives” in processed foods.

Here’s what GMA and FMI say the new label will look like:

Four of these things are required: Calories, Saturated fat, Sodium, and Total (not added) sugars.  Packages can also display up to two “nutrients to encourage” picked from this collection:  protein; fiber; vitamins A, C, and D; and potassium, iron, and calcium.

Let’s give these food trade associations credit for listing sugars instead of the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation for trans fat.  Trans fats are already gone from most processed foods.  Everyone cares about sugars.  But these are total sugars, not added sugars, which is what really matters.

And protein?  Since when does protein need to be encouraged in American diets?  We already eat twice the protein we need.  The rationale?  Vegetarians.   I repeat.  Since when don’t vegetarians get enough protein?  Never mind, protein makes the products look better.

Nutrition Keys merely repeats what’s on the Nutrition Facts labels, only worse.  It makes the percent Daily Values practically invisible.  Which is better?  High or low milligrams or grams.  You have to know this, and Nutrition Keys doesn’t help with that problem.

Nutrition Keys, says the industry, is about “more clarity in labeling.”  Really?  Here’s what it will look like on a food package.

I’ve been collecting reactions.

Although GMA and FMI insist they they are doing this in response to the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, the White House issued this statement:

The White House, including the First Lady, recognizes these companies for the leadership they have shown in advancing this initiative. We regard their commitment to dedicate space, for the first time, to an industry-wide front-of-pack label as a significant first step and look forward to future improvement. The FDA plans to monitor this initiative closely and will work with experts in the field to evaluate whether the new label is meeting the needs of American consumers and pursue improvements as needed. We will continue to work on seeking solutions for the problem of childhood obesity in America.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro was more forthcoming:

The industry’s unveiling today of its front-of-package labeling system is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA’s effort to develop strong guidelines for FOP labels.

Given that negative and positive nutrients will not be differentiated on the package, there is significant risk that these labels will be ignored.  An adequate labeling system must clearly alert consumers about potentially unhealthy foods, and should not mislead them into believing that some foods are healthy when they clearly are not.

Reporters asked tough questions on the conference call about preemption of FDA efforts to do front-of-package labeling in a rational way (see my post from yesterday).  Perhaps space limitations made full accounts impossible:

  • MYoung


  • Lea

    While this may be a step in the right direction, how many people know what their RDA values are? I work in public health and when you start spewing out numbers to people their eyes tend to glaze over.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Food Politics » “Singing Kumbaya,” GMA/FMI displays preemptive label design --

  • Tom Wigginton

    Is there any mention of standardizing and/or legitimizing “serving sizes?” Is it still not uncommon to see a serving size that represents much less than is commonly consumed?

  • Anthro

    The serving size in your example gives the calories for the cereal, But add a cup of skim milk and you have another 100 or so calories, and we all know that most people add even more sugar! Suddenly this “healthy” breakfast component is very questionable. Add in the orange juice, toast, butter, jam or whatever else people may eat and you may as well have bacon and eggs!


    Have I missed something? Is there any reason the FDA cannot just say, “sorry, this is our job and your label just isn’t good enough to meet public health needs”?

  • Pete

    @ Anthro – Organic bacon & eggs. Best breakfast on earth.

  • rebecca

    When I started drastically cutting down on the amount of meat in my diet (I hesitate to refer to myself as a vegetarian because I still consume meat once in a blue moon) I had a very hard time convincing my father that I wasn’t going to waste away due to the lack of protein in my diet. It’s such a widespread and annoying misconception.

  • Pete

    My HDL is more than twice my LDL. I am 6′ 2″, weigh 215lbs and can see my abs. I eat meat 4 times a day (approx. 24oz total). Only organic meat mind you and nothing processed. Other meals are eggs and all day I eat copious amounts of broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, spaghetti squash, onions, peppers and other veggies.

    Meat is not the enemy, nor is protein. The fact is amino acids are the building blocks of life. I AGREE with Marion that it should not be used as a marketing gimmick, but don’t pretend protein is not important. There should be a carb count on that front label. Thats the real problem.

  • skitt

    I’ve actually found the front of box labeling helpful lately, at least when it comes to cereal. I know from your book that 5g of sugar is a teaspoon, so it’s made it much easier for me to make low sugar choices for my kids without pulling all the boxes off the shelf to read the fine print on the side. I admit it could be better, and I should just be giving them homemade oatmeal everyday, but it’s a start. Multigrain Cheerios are fooling me no longer!

  • Gesa Maschkowski

    What I criticize of GDAs is that they often refer to ridiculous portion sizes. E.g. in Germany most common serving sizes for ready to eat cereals is 1.06 OZ (30g). Now you probably assume that industry tries to get low values of the “Bad Four” in the GDA-bubbles, but you are wrong. Industry uses little portion sizes “to educate the consumer eating less” said a German spokesman from

    Apart from that food industry plays the same game in Europe: The EU funded research consortium Flabel was implemented in August 2008. It is dedicated for 3 years to provide the scientific basis on use of nutrition information on food labels.
    It was aimed to develop “a research-based best practice proposal for nutrition labelling, and test it in a real-world store environment” ( But industry did not wait for the results, in 2008 already more than 70 % of products were labelled with GDAs.

  • Tom

    If they want to fight obesity, they should list carbs-but I suspect, since processing food adds carbs, they don’t want the public to know.

  • Jill

    Ha – this is a gimmick to keep consumers’ eyes away from the ever-lengthening and disturbing ingredient list…

  • Pingback: Food Politics: Jan. 25, 2011 « Speaker's Corner()

  • Laura

    I agree with Jill that this is just trying to encourage lazy consumers not to look at the ACTUAL nutrition label/ingredients list. Totally not helping at all!

    I also find it shocking that people think that positive and negative ingredients need to be called out. Come on, do you really think people are going to say “this one has a higher number for fat and sugar, so it’s better for me!” or “Uh oh, the fiber number is really high so I’m avoiding it.” You have to give people SOME credit. And if they can’t figure out even that much, they’re probably just going to eat Cheetos all day long anyway.

  • Pingback: They’ll Tell Us What’s Healthy! « GoodFood World()

  • Pingback: Healthy Communities — January 28, 2011 | Building Healthy Communities()

  • Tanya

    Not all consumers are interested in taking the time to read the “actual” label. I don’t think it’s fair to call them lazy – maybe they just don’t care.

    I agree that naming positive and negative ingredients is not necessary, and might even be perceived as paternalistic. If you are choosing between chocolate bars and they are all marked with a red label or a “bad nutrient” mark, you’re put on the defensive for eating something that’s not approved, and probably won’t be encouraged to discriminate any further.

    But if you have a quick and easy way to choose between two similar products (and there are so many products today that it is often a daunting task to determine the differences), maybe a front of package label like this draws your attention to whats in the product – maybe you can choose based on that rather than the brand or the packaging and flashy health claims.

  • Pingback: What the New Look Food Labels Lack: Graphical Integrity | Iphonespedia()

  • Pingback: Food Industry Thinks Name Change Will Disguise Bad Labeling Scheme | Shine on Scotland Campaign()

  • Pingback: Food Industry Thinks Name Change Will Disguise Bad Labeling Scheme | Ensure Nutrition Facts()

  • Pingback: Food industry thinks name change will disguise bad labeling scheme - InstantKEbooks Blog - InstantKEbooks Blog()