Symbols Of Change

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

It's a no-brainer that a small baked potato is a better nutritional choice than a large order of greasy french fries. But when it comes to comparing the nutritional attributes of many other foods, the possibilities can get pretty confusing.

Is a bowl of oatmeal better to eat than whole-wheat waffles or a pumpernickel bagel? Is a small, lean steak a smarter choice than fried fish sticks? Is spinach superior to peas, corn or carrots? And is it better to get bone-building calcium from a glass of skim milk, a cup of fruit yogurt sweetened with a sugar substitute or calcium-fortified orange juice?

"Even a trained nutritionist can get dizzy comparing foods that have very different amounts of, say, sodium, saturated fat, vitamin C and dietary fiber," says Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

At a second day of public hearings today, the Food and Drug Administration is seeking counsel on how best to make those choices easier for consumers.

Experts call this "nutrition profiling." Think of it as a quick guide to food shopping. Where nutrition labels provide valuable information about protein, carbohydrates, fat, sodium and more, nutrition profiling gives a product a symbol on the front, labeling it "heart friendly," for example, or just "healthier." That makes it easy to spot, grab and go.

"Simple front-label icons could be a real breakthrough in reaching people who are less motivated than a heart disease victim or diabetic to study the several dozen numbers on a nutrition label," says Jacobson, whose group has petitioned the FDA to consider adding nutrition icons to food labels.

But what symbol is most effective and what nutritional criteria should be used to award it? Will consumers use the symbols to make better choices or feel overwhelmed by more information? Those are questions that FDA officials hope to answer in this week's hearings.

A number of nongovernmental groups already award symbols to help point consumers to better nutritional options. The American Heart Association gives a check mark to products certified to be low in fat, cholesterol and sodium. To earn a check, these products also must contain at least 10 percent of the daily value of one of six essential nutrients.

And the Boston-based Whole Grains Council grants a golden wheat stamp to products containing a sufficient amount of whole grains.

Some major food companies are also getting into the act. Kraft and PepsiCo -- along with grocery chains Hannaford and Harris Teeter -- have developed systems to rate food according to their nutritional attributes.

The trouble is that none of these approaches is standardized to judge what's healthful and what's not.

"The proliferation of different nutrition symbols on food packaging, well-intended as it may be, is likely to further confuse, rather than assist, American consumers who are trying to make good nutrition choices for themselves and their families," says Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

Harkin says he plans to introduce legislation requiring the FDA to establish one set of nutrition symbols. "The FDA should take meaningful steps to establish some consistency to these many different systems of nutrition symbols," he says.

In the United Kingdom, the government has already stepped in. A traffic-light symbol on food packages alerts consumers to a product's total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content. A red light signals high amounts, yellow shows medium and green means low levels. The European Parliament is also considering nutritional profiling of food. Other efforts are underway in France.

"There is a drumbeat to change the food label," says Adam Drewnowski, director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

While scientists, the industry and the federal government work to standardize nutrition profiling, there are tools available to help you make smart choices -- if you're willing to invest the time to use them.

* Daily value. Find this on the nutrition facts label and use it to gauge how rich a product is in various nutrients. The FDA says that a DV of 5 percent or less is low; 20 percent or more is high.

* Ingredients lists. Products list ingredients in descending order, so the higher an ingredient is on the list, the more of it a product contains.

* Serving size. That small bag of pretzels or that soda may look like a single serving, but read the label to be sure.

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