by Marion Nestle
Oct 24 2012

What to do about front-of-package food labels?

The British Food Standards Agency has just announced a new front-of-package voluntary labeling system to go onto food packages next year, maybe.

The exact design is still uncertain, but it might look like this:

An example of the what the new hybrid food labels might look like. Shows traffic light sytem, %GDA system and high, medium, low system.

Compare this to the scheme Mark Bittman suggested in the Sunday Times last week.

Bittman’s idea does way more.  He suggests one design to

  • Rate foods on the basis of nutrition, “foodness” (an index of the extent of processing), and welfare (of everyone and everything)
  • Give them an overall score and a traffic light ranking (green, yellow, red)
  • Note whether they contain GMOs or not

Here’s how it would look:


Recall that the FDA recruited the Institute of Medicine to recommend a new labeling scheme.  It did just that a year ago, in a report advising the FDA to restrict front-of-package labels to information about calories, saturated and trans fat, sugar, and salt.

Since then, the FDA has said not a word about its food labeling initiative (More research needed? Election-year politics?)

In the meantime, Whole Foods has implemented its own new traffic light labeling scheme, but without those pesky red symbols well established to discourage sales.  If the food doesn’t rate a green or yellow symbol, it won’t have anything on it.

Everybody is doing food rating systems.  The owner of Rouge Tomate has developed SPE certification for restaurants, a system based on “Sourcing, Preparing, and Enhancing philosophy and culinary techniques.”

All of the people doing rating and certification systems set up their own criteria, and all differ.

Are these systems helpful?  Only if you trust that they are meaningful.  I don’t know how to find that out without doing a lot of research.

Readers: Do you like these systems?  Use them? Find them helpful?  I don’t, but am willing to be persuaded otherwise.

  • At a minimum I would like to see GMO labeling added to current U.S. labels. Red-yellow-green labeling is not a bad idea in theory, but would be complicated to implement in a meaningful way.

  • Anna

    GMO labeling is essential. Also, no more “hidden ingredients” (those “trace” amounts of stuff that currently aren’t legally required to be listed). I want to know if there is even a remote amount of sugar, gluten, msg, etc. in my food. I hate the red-yellow-green labeling. I don’t need anyone giving me a recommendation on the daily requirement of macronutrient amounts. I know what I need and it is very individual anyway.

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  • Theresa Lamothe

    I loved Mark Bittman’s labeling idea. Yes it’s radical but given the state of our kids health something radical needs to happen. Big industry will fight it of course but that’s expected.

  • I am with you on this one Marion. I do not use any of these food labeling systems. As you have so eloquently detailed, any labeling system can and will used to market product. Labeling fascinates me and recipe analysis is fun, but when it comes to eating I tend to rely on commonsense instead of someone else’s definition of “healthy.”