by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labels

Nov 19 2007

UK alters traffic light labeling system to account for added sugars

According to FoodProductionDaily, my newsletter source for information about food and nutrition in Europe, the U.K. Food Standards agency is changing its red-yellow-green labeling system to distinguish added sugars from those naturally present in foods. This is a good idea and I wish the FDA would do the same thing, but one of the reasons given doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. According to this report, the Food Standards Agency agreed to do this because “sugars derived from fruit, such as fructose, are generally lower in calories, while added sugars are perceived as unhealthier.” Added sugars may be perceived as unhealthier, but sugars are sugars and they all–sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, lactose, and all the rest–have the same number of calories, roughly 4 per gram. I think there is a better reason: naturally occurring sugars come with everything else that’s in fruits and vegetables, and added sugars don’t.

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Nov 7 2007

Trans Fat Dilemmas

I have long talked about trans fat as a calorie distracter. People think “trans fat-free” means “calorie-free” when it most definitely does not. Whatever replaces trans fats will have just as many calories–130 per tablespoon, meaning that each tablespoon is 5% of a day’s average calorie intake. That’s why I either laugh or cry when I see “zero grams trans fat”
on the labels of junk foods. Trans fats raise the risk of heart disease a bit more than do the saturated fats that occur naturally in foods. But trans fats are unnatural and unnecessary and it’s good to get rid of them. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal explains how food companies are struggling to find replacements that do not increase the amount of saturated fat in processed foods. This, as it turns out, is not so easy to do. I discuss all this in the fats-and-oils chapter of What to Eat, so I’m happy to see the WSJ take it on.

Nov 2 2007

Health claims and eco-labels on food products: the USDA’s analysis

USDA economists (a national treasure, in my opinion) have just produced an analysis of health (“no trans fat!”) and ecologic (Fair Trade, free-range) labels. Their conclusion: most of the time, the labels benefit food producers more than consumers. Why am I not surprised? Much evidence suggests that they confuse consumers about the issues (which is why I went to the trouble of writing What to Eat).

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Nov 2 2007

Have any ideas for those pesky Daily Values on food labels?

The FDA has just announced that it will be revisiting the Daily Values on food labels so here’s your chance to weigh in on whether you think they are good, bad, or indifferent in helping people decide whether a food product is worth eating. These, of course, are complicated. Lower is better for saturated fat and sodium, but higher is better for fiber and vitamins. Is there a better way to do this? Now is the time to state your opinion to the FDA. How? Submit comments according to these instructions.

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Sep 10 2007

FDA Considering Traffic Light System for Healthy Foods

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.

Sep 6 2007

Kellogg’s Nutrition at a Glance?

I get sent lots of food company press releases and this one is just in. Kellogg’s is announcing its new nutrition labeling for cereal boxes. Useful? Or even more confusing?

Sep 6 2007

Sugar Free?

The FDA is fed up with products claiming to be sugar free but not mentioning that they still have lots of calories. So the agency has decided not to let food companies get away with this anymore. Its latest “guidance” warns companies that if they say a product is “sugar-free,” it better be low in calories too. It’s great to see the FDA trying to do something about misleading health claims. Doesn’t this poor, beleaguered agency deserve a cheer for this one!

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Aug 11 2007

Can Foods Be Ranked Nutritionally?

A comment posted yesterday under the Label category asks whether it is possible to rank foods: “The idea that I’m trying to express is some measure that shows that 100 calories of, say, broccoli sauteed in olive oil is healthier than 100 calories of shortbread cookies or 100 calories of potato chips, even if they happend to have the same number of fat grams.”

I have philosophical as well as practical problems with this kind of approach. First, the practical: Foods contain 40 to 50 components known to be required in the human diet and hundreds more (antioxidants, for example) that are not considered essential but have effects on health. All foods except sugar–which has calories but no nutrients–have lots of different nutrients, but in different proportions. Once you get beyond soft drinks, the situation gets really complicated. Many groups have taken this on: Center for Science in the Public Interest, Hannaford supermarkets, the Australian Heart Foundation, for example. I think they are way too complicated and the cut points set up a slippery slope. If you rank foods high because they contain vitamins, all companies have to do is add vitamins to their products to make them rank higher.

Philosophically, I much prefer the “eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food” approach. Because there are so many different nutrients to keep track of, and because foods have nutrients in different proportions, eating lots of different kinds of relatively unprocessed foods takes care of nutritional needs. Keeping junk foods (highly processed by definition) to a minimum means that you don’t have to worry about the nutritional details and can enjoy what you eat.

Thanks for asking!