I’m keynoting the workship on Food, Ethics, Politics at 4:00 with a reception to follow. My talk, “”Food, Ethics, Politics: The View from 2022,” will be in the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Maeder Hall, Room 002. This event is part of the University Center for Human Values (UCHV) Conferences, Workshops & Special Events. To register to attend, click here.
Currently browsing posts about: Label-scoring-systems
Big Food companies have gotten together and agreed on a scoring system to identify “better-for-you” packaged foods (see below). Thanks to my colleague in Copenhagen, Morten Strunge Meyer (MortenCopenhagen), for sending the link to the qualifying crieteria. As is true of scoring systems in general, these are complicated and constitute a slippery slope. Take sodium, for example. The allowance is particularly generous (junk foods don’t taste good without it) – 480 mg per serving. That means 479 mg qualifies and that’s still nearly half a gram.
Having one checkmark instead of the various ones run by PepsiCo, Kraft, and Unilever seems useful if – and only if – the criteria are stringent (which this one is not for sodium), and this symbol replaces all of the others. Even so, this looks like preemption. It’s voluntary and seems designed to head off a mandatory traffic light system (red, yellow, green) that would warn people away from the worst junk foods. It also preempts the FDA proposal to display the full number of calories per package. Alas, this is a standard food industry tactic: preempt with something that seems better than what is currently available to stave off something that could be worse.
Adam Drewnowski at University of Washington in Seattle has come up with yet another scoring system to rank the nutritional value of food products. So we now have three done by independent scientists: Hannaford’s, David Katz’s, and now this one (see previous posts). And companies like Kraft (Sensible Solutions) and PepsiCo (Smart Spot) have their own. What is a consumer to do? I, of course, say get rid of all of them. I’m willing to concede that an alternative would be for the FDA to convene a summit and select one rating method. As these systems proliferate, the “one rating system” idea looks better and better, no?
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, who directs a bariatric medical clinic in Ottawa, sends a video report (in which he stars!) of an investigation into the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check program on food labels. This program is much like our American Heart Association’s (AHA) Heart Check program. For both programs, companies pay the organizations for use of the Check on the package label. Both use saturated fat and sodium as cut points for use of the logo, but don’t care much about sugars. I’ve argued for years that putting the AHA’s Check on sugary cereals misleads consumers and is not a good idea. The video–and the press accounts–of this investigation ought to hugely embarrass the organizations, maybe even enough to get them to end the programs.
My previous post elicited a long and thoughtful comment from Dr. David Katz. His response is well worth reading. Take a look. And thank you David for writing in. Your scoring system is an interesting experiment. Will people routinely choose foods with higher scores? Will food companies change their product formulas in order to qualify for higher scores? Will people be healthier as a result? Will they be less confused about nutrition? I will be interested to follow the progress of your system and see how it works out. Thanks again for writing and happy new year!
My first question in the new year is from “fretful reader” who asks: “Esteemed Wise Woman Whose Writing Lights A Fire Under Me: …today’s [San Francisco] Chronicle has a story about the ONQI(overall nutritional quality index)…which purports to ‘make nutrition easy’. My college education (about 30 yrs old, damn near antiquated) is
inadequate to the task of combining “positive nutrients” , “negative nutrients”, dividing them, and why didn’t they remember to subtract the number of ingredients on the list altogether…as a way of penalizing the ‘foods’ that have those scary long lists in a designed to be unreadable, vertical typeface? Does it sound like I’m irritable? Probably.”
Dear irritable, fretful: Me too. I’m not much for scoring systems of any kind on food. I don’t think you need a score to know whether you are eating a junk food or not and is a slightly better junk food better for you? I can’t remember who started these things but PepsiCo has its Smart Spots and Kraft has its Sensible Solutions and companies like those can set up their own criteria for what is and is not “healthier.” It’s a lot of fun to go to supermarkets and look to see which products qualify. Kraft’s Lunchables are a good place to start. See if you can tell the difference between products that do and do not qualify. Hannaford supermarkets got some independent nutrition researchers to develop criteria for awarding one , two, or three stars to healthier products and guess what: less than one quarter of nearly 30,000 products qualified for even one star, and most of those were fruits and vegetables in the produce section. So when the criteria are tough, hardly anything qualifies. So now Dr. David Katz at Yale has gotten a committee together to develop his own set. You have to have a degree in mathematics to understand it but that doesn’t really matter. Do you really need a scoring system to tell you that General Mills’ Wheaties (score: 246.2403) is better than Barbara’s Puffins Peanut Butter (9.937892) or Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies (0.476746)? Never mind the apparent but misleading precision of the 4 to 6 decimal places. All of these are low scores. The problem with these systems is that the criteria are arbitrary and make some highly processed foods look better than others. This is a great marketing tool but will it help people eat more healthfully? I doubt it. I take an extreme position on all such systems. They should not be allowed. If we must have them, the FDA needs to step in and set up one set of criteria. And I don’t envy the committee that has to do that. So I am adding one more item to my list of “rules” for supermarket shopping in What to Eat. If it has a self-endorsement of nutritional quality, don’t buy it; such things are about marketing, not health.
I’ve been meaning to say something about all the new methods for distinguishing foods on the basis of nutritional criteria. Companies like PepsiCo (“Smart Spot”) and Kraft (“Sensible Solution”) put those labels on products that meet nutritional criteria set up by the companies themselves. These criteria usually let lots of the company’s products qualify for the label. Hannaford supermarkets got independent nutritionists to develop criteria. When they applied these criteria to 27,000 products in the stores, only 23% passed the lowest screen and 80% of these were fruits and vegetables in the produce section. Bottom line: the minute you start processing foods heavily, the nutritional values decline. So now some academics are developing quality indices of one kind or another. You can read about this in last week’s New York Times. My friend Phil Lempert (“the Supermarket Guru”) also weighs in on these methods. He thinks the criteria will help consumers make better choices. I think a “better” junk food is not necessarily better. What do you think?
The FDA is meeting this week to consider a red, yellow, green system for labeling foods according to their degree of healthfulness. Here’s what the New York Times has to say about this. This is, of course, would be much like the Hannaford supermarket “follow the stars” program, about which several of you have strong feelings (see comments under entries for Supermarkets and Labels). In the early 1990s, Center for Science in the Public Interest did a fold-out pyramid designed to be put on school cafeteria tabletops. This listed foods on green (anytime), yellow (once in awhile), and red (seldom) sides of the pyramid. As is always the case with these kinds of approaches, the line between categories is a thin one and subject to much argument and manipulation. The FDA proposed something much simpler about five years ago: to put the entire number of calories on the front of packaged foods. What a good idea! It still hasn’t happened. Don’t hold your breath for this one either.