Sunday, October 23, 2011


Labeling of food packets containing processed food products of different nutrient content is intended to be a transparent mechanism of communication from the processor to the consumer. Unfortunately the science of human nutrition is so vast and ever changing, even food scientists find it difficult to decipher the real meaning of figures printed on food packets regarding their nutrient content. Credit must be given to the safety agencies that the labeling details are changed some time depending on new data emanating from time to time to make them truly informative. However consumers often fail to grasp the significance of the nutrition information affecting his capacity to make the most appropriate choice and it is here that suggestions are made to present the information on a graphic mode or symbol mode which are easily grasped. The traffic signal system of using colors like red, amber and green is being experimented with by some countries and it may take some time to arrive at any decision regarding its effectiveness and drawbacks. In the latest proposal coming from the US the star system is being recommended and probably it may be superior to other systems. Here are the details as being reported.

"The Energy Star program makes it easier for consumers to pick appliances. Now the Institute of Medicine is recommending the government create a similar system for foods and drinks sold in the grocery store. In a new report, the IOM — an independent group that advises the government on health policy — recommends instituting a front-of-the-package rating system that gives foods zero to three points, depending on their levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars. Those were chosen because they "are the components of diet most closely linked to chronic-disease risk," said Alice Lichtenstein, vice-chair of the IOM committee and a professor at Tufts University, at a press conference today. Foods with too-high levels of any one of those components would get no points. The ratings would be displayed using stars, check marks or some other icon. In addition, all foods would have the amount of calories per serving displayed on the front of their packages — and a serving would be a familiar household measurement, such as a slice or a cup. The familiar nutrition facts label on the back would continue to include additional information. Ellen Wartella, chair of the committee and a professor at Northwestern University, said at the press conference that while there are many factors that influence what and how Americans eat, "there's a clear disconnect" between the dietary guidelines for better health and what people actually eat. Providing raw information alone isn't enough, she said, and so the committee is recommending the FDA and USDA consider a "shift in strategy" that encourages consumers "to purchase healthy foods and beverages."

The traffic light system seems to have run into some incongruities with some bad products being given the green signal while a few good foods are branded as red ones. The star system of grading foods has the added advantage that similar categorization exists in regard to electrical energy efficiency grading and people are already familiar with it. It does not require much of an education to understand that higher the number of stars a product gets better it is supposed to be. Probably the nutrient content presently in vogue can be dispensed with and replaced with simple iconic classification like "starring" the product based on its nutrition and health value. There will be some problems with some products and such discrepancies can be sorted out through consensus. Fact still remains that such quality and safety grading will be much better than abstract figures contained in the nutrition labels, making no sense to most consumers. A moot question is whether industry will adopt such a system voluntarily or it should be made mandatory. If it comes into vogue as an option, there will be lot of confusion in the market with some adopting it and others not serious about putting the same into practice. On the other hand a mandatory enforcement will automatically weed out manufacturers peddling junk foods while those making good foods have better chance of success.


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