Lots of well meaning people are trying to develop systems for labeling foods by their degree of nutritional quality (I file posts on this topic under Scoring systems). My preference is for traffic lights — green for eat anytime, yellow for once-in-a-while, and red for hardly ever). So I was not surprised to see an announcement of a new study from Australia that tested consumers’ understanding of several kinds of food ranking systems. According to the study itself, traffic lights beat out the other systems tested in helping consumers choose healthier foods. I hear rumors that the Institute of Medicine is starting a study to evaluate consumers’ understanding of the various kinds of ranking labels on food products. I suppose we will need to wait until that study is complete – a process that usually takes two or three years – before we hear its conclusion. If we have to have one system, I’m voting for traffic lights.
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When it comes to food, defining “healthy” is a major preoccupation of food companies these days. Marketers are falling all over each other trying to label food products with numbers or symbols to convince you that their products are better-for-you choices. These, as I keep saying (see posts under “Scoring systems”), are about marketing, not health.
Now, the Strategic Alliance, the component of the Oakland-based Prevention Institute devoted to “promoting healthy food and activity environments,” has produced a working definition of a healthful food. Its report, Setting the Record Straight: Nutritionists Define Healthful Food, applies three principles: Healthful food should be (1) wholesome, (2) produced in ways that are good for people, animals, and natural resources, and (3) available, accessible, and affordable.
This is a food system definition that makes scoring systems unnecessary. “Wholesome,” says this document, means foods that are minimally processed, full of naturally occurring nutrients, produced without added hormones or antibiotics, and processed without artificial colors, flavors, or unnecessary preservatives.
I wonder how many of those highly processed products in supermarket center aisles can meet this definition?
First, the cartoons: this week’s question from Eating Liberally’s kat has to do with whether it makes sense to put cartoon characters on eggs or, for that matter, fruits and vegetables. I vote no, of course, and the illustrations alone explain why.
Next, the scholarship: The latest volume of Annual Reviews of Public Health contains excellent reviews of studies of the influence of the food marketing environment on child and adult health.
Sara Bleich et al explain why obesity has become so common in the developed world.
Kelly Brownell’s group reviews the effects of food marketing on childhood obesity.
David Katz discusses school-based obesity interventions.
Mary Story et al describe policy approaches to creating healthy food environments.
And the American Association of Wine Economists (a group new to me, but interesting) forwards its Working Paper #33:
Janet Currie et al on the effect of fast food restaurants on obesity.
Finally, the action: Perhaps in response to all this, language inserted into the congressional spending bill asks the Federal Trade Commission to set up an interagency committee to set nutritional standards for products allowed to be marketed to children age 17 or under. According to Advertising Age, the food industry thinks this is not a good idea.
Several Danish consumer groups have banded together to oppose the food industry-backed GDA system for ranking the nutritional quality of processed foods. The GDA (the Guidance Daily Amount) system is already in use on some products and food industry groups want it required for all European Union food labels. Of course food companies want it. It doesn’t use the U.K.’s red/yellow/green traffic light system that encourages people to avoid the red-labeled products.
The “Stop GDA” campaign argues that the GDA system encourages purchases of processed foods at the expense of the real foods. It has produced a clever pamphlet to back up this argument. Its criticisms apply just as well to all scoring systems for food products, except the traffic lights.
A report just out from the European Union explains why food companies so strongly oppose traffic light systems for labeling food products. Consumers interpret red lights as meaning “don’t eat me.” Here is how the U.K. Food Safety Authority is using traffic lights. Compare this to the check mark system preferred by the food industry.
Food Production Daily, a food industry website from the U.K., has some interesting things to say about food scoring and ranking systems, and especially about how their proliferation is so confusing to the public. There are so many now, that nobody can keep them straight. My sentiments exactly.
July 24 update: Fortunately, the website, fooducate.com, keeps track of them. This is a great place to get started!
This time it’s Sara Lee, which has just introduced yet another scheme for showing off how nutritious its products are. Thanks to FoodEducate for alerting me to this one and also for this site’s excellent history of such schemes from 1862 to now. All of these schemes can be manipulated so the packaged foods look like they contain more nutrients than real foods. FDA: take this on, please.
Update January 15: And now Jewel-Osco stores join the party. I’d say this has gotten completely out of hand.
Update January 17: Add Nutrition IQ from the Supervalu supermarket chain to the list.
Thanks to blogger Hemi Weingarten for telling me about the new scheme from Stop and Shop to help you pick out the thousands of foods it identifies as better for you. As you know from my previous postings on these schemes (filed under Scoring Systems), I don’t have much love for food rating systems. They depend entirely on who devises them. It is very much in the interest of Stop and Shop, PepsiCo, Kraft, Unilever, and all the other companies that are doing this to devise criteria that allow lots of their products to qualify. Recall the Hannaford example: when the supermarket chain recruited independent nutrition experts to devise criteria, less than one-fourth of the products in the stores qualified even for a one-star rating and most of those were fruits and vegetables in the produce section. The moral: eat minimally processed foods and you don’t have to worry about such things.