by Marion Nestle
Jan 24 2011

Forget FDA. Grocery trade groups to do their own “better-for-you” logos

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are announcing their “Nutrition Keys” plan for front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labels.  Their member companies have agreed to display calories and percent of saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, per serving, on the front of product packages.

So far, so good.

But they also will be displaying up to eight “positives,” nutrients that are supposed to be good for you.  They say they will be using some kind of design similar to what some companies are using now, only with “positives” added.

Note: this illustration comes from Mars (the company, not the planet).  It is not what GMA and FMI will necessarily use.

Let me repeat what I wrote last October when GMA and FMI first said they intended to do this:

Forget the consumer-friendly rhetoric.

There is only one explanation for this move: heading off the FDA’s Front-of-Package (FOP) labeling initiatives.

In October, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released the first of its FDA-sponsored reports on FOP labels.  Based on research on consumer understanding of food labels and other considerations, the IOM committee strongly recommended that FOP symbols only list calories, sodium, trans fat, and saturated fat.

This led William Neuman of the New York Times to summarize the IOM approach as: “Tell us how your products are bad for us.”

GMA and FMI would much rather label their products with all the things that are good about them, like added vitamins, omega-3s, and fiber.  If they have to do negatives, they prefer “no trans fat” or “no cholesterol.”

What they especially do not want is for the FDA to impose “traffic-light” symbols.  These U.K. symbols, you may recall from previous posts, discourage consumers from buying anything labeled in red, and were so strongly opposed by the food industry that they caused the undoing of the British Food Standards Agency.

GMA and FMI, no doubt, are hoping the same thing will happen to the FDA.

At the moment, the FDA is waiting for the IOM’s second report.  This one, due in a few months, will advise the FDA about what to do about FOP labels—again based on research.  Couldn’t GMA and FMI wait?

From what I’ve been hearing, GMA and FMI could not care less about the IOM or FDA.  This is what they had to do to get member companies to agree.  They say the new labels will go on about 70% of branded products by next year.  They also say they will spend $50 million on public education.

How this will play out in practice remains to be seen.  You can bet that plenty of highly processed foods will qualify for “positives,” just like they did with the industry-initiated Smart Choices logo, may it rest in peace.

As I said in October: This move is all the evidence the FDA needs for mandatory FOP labels.   GMA and FMI have just demonstrated that the food industry will not willingly label its processed foods in ways that help the public make healthier food choices.

Let’s hope the GMA/FMI scheme flunks the laugh test and arouses the interest of city and state attorneys general—just as the Smart Choices program did.

The official announcement is coming this afternoon.  Stay tuned.

Addition: Scott Obenshaw, Director of Communications for GMA files the following clarification:

1.)     In addition to the information regarding calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content, the Nutrition Keys icon on some products will display information about two “nutrients to encourage.”  The two nutrients to encourage that may appear on some products as part of the Nutrition Keys icon must come from the following list: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and also protein.  These “nutrients to encourage” can only be placed on a package if the product has more than 10% of the daily value per serving of the nutrient and meets the FDA requirements for a “good source” nutrient content claim.

2.)     Transfat is not part of the label – only calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content.

Let’s give GMA and FMI lots of credit for replacing the IOM’s recommendation for trans fat with sugars.  Trans fats are heading out of the food supply and consumers want to know about sugars.  So that’s an improvement.  And two positives might not overwhelm the so-called negatives.  But I’m eager to see what the design really looks like and will report as soon as it is released.

  • MYoung

    It is absolute fact that food labeling is misleading. You must take a course in consumer advertising and data evaluation just to be able to figure out what is actually in processed foods. I propose this: A leader board at every other isle with basic definitions of what let’s say, monosodium glutemate is, or what hydrogenated actually means and the effect of consuming foods with these additives has on the body. The feelings of uphoria, the dragging feet after the high and why it happens. We must admit that the average consumer, while they may have taken science courses in highschool, is undereducated in this area.
    $50 million is a drop in the bucket of what is needed to reverse educate the average public. And that is the crux isn’t it. First we have to get the food companies to actually admit that some of their foods are bad for you, and then get them to undo what advertisments the last 50+/- years have done. Yes preservatives are a great big boost to the consumer. It helps those that cannot store perishable foods. But food companies are using highly addictive sugars, starches, and salts to prolong food life so that they can make more money and have a less loss in their quarterly statements.
    I guarantee in the past that a butcher didn’t process a hog until the day he knew he was going to sell the meat. Now in these mega grocery stores the “butcher” is only in charge of reording preprocessed meats and stocking chemically treated ground beef.
    I like the test of real food. More than five ingredients? NOT food. Was it ever alive? Food. I’ve been using this the last few weeks. It works great.
    Perhaps we should spend a million of that 50 on the “Is It Food Test?” being emailed to every consumer that has ever given an address for a promotion at their grocery. Hummmmm……

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  • Anthro

    There is a debate column in the NY Times today about the Wal Mart initiative to cut bad stuff and promote produce with (somewhat) lower prices. Ninety percent of them agreed that the effort is worthwhile and may or will make a difference. Only one brave soul said the emperor has no clothes. I was disappointed that you were not on this panel, needless to say.

    I mention this because its so like this latest bit of obfuscation from industry. “positives”, indeed! If it’s good for you, it doesn’t need additives to become good for you. Two hundred sixty calories in this “serving” (which is probably a “snack”) is the point, and at least that is there. What they are trying to do is argue for the “good calories, bad calories” idea–as if the actual AMOUNT of calories do not matter.

    I will check back later to see what happens–this is a real cliffhanger, no?

  • Jo

    Marion, I am a little confused. If trans fat is not part of the labeling, couldn’t they just then smack the label on something that has trans fat? Doesn’t this give them back the luxury of not having to list trans fat content?

  • Marion

    @Jo: Trans fat stays on the Nutrition Facts panel. That should do the trick.

  • The icons are up on GMA’s website and the American Beverage Association’s website. Looks like General Mills and Kellogg’s won out–the system is essentially the one they use now on their cereal products. Why doesn’t the calories bubble contain a % of calories indicator below like used in the nutrient bubbles? Seems a glaring inconsistency. I was happy to see the American Bev. guidelines are for total calories for up to 20 oz. containers (as opposed to serving).

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  • Cathy Richards

    Without the “traffic light” colour coding, this type of front-of-package info is not much better than the Nutrition Facts label. Definitely they are doing this specifically to avoid having government imposed rules around voluntary/mandatory front-of-package labels, which would almost certainly require colour coding.

    Funny that they chose the colour green, out of all the colours of the rainbow.

    Here’s what Kermit said, in part, about being green:

    “…It’s not easy being green
    It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things
    And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re
    Not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water
    Or stars in the sky

    But green’s the color of Spring
    And green can be cool and friendly-like…”

  • Gesa

    just a little note from Europe: A claim that a food is a source of vitamins and/or minerals may only be made where the product contains at least a significant amount. That means, the food has to contain 15 % of the recommended allowance supplied by 100 g or 100 ml or per package if the package contains only a single portion..

    (See Annex of Regulation REGULATION (EC) No 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims

    Good luck!

  • Andrew

    I don’t understand this. ALL of that information is already on the side/bottom of the package on the nutrition facts label. I don’t see the need to list the same information on the package twice. Just remove all FOP label claims(because as someone who has studied/researched them extensively, even I get confused about the “health” claims) and have the FOP like it was 15 yrs ago.

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