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Will Front-of-Package Food Labels Lead to Healthier Diets?

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WebMD Expert Column

It is no mystery that the habits of overeating the wrong foods and not getting enough exercise have led too many adults and children to obesity.  

Some experts and government officials believe that placing key nutrient information on the front of packaged foods can make a difference by encouraging healthier food and beverage choices.  

There is no question that something new and innovative is needed to help Americans make better choices -- but not everyone agrees what that should be.

Understanding the nutritional quality of foods is fundamental to making healthier choices. But it is not that simple. Multiple factors come into play when determining a food's nutritional goodness -- and they're not always on the front of the package.

Nutrition Facts Panel Often Overlooked

The Nutrition Facts panel on the back or side of packages is not being used routinely.  

Consumer interest in reading the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of packages has slipped in recent years, according to market research by the NPD Group. NPD analyst Harry Blazer says in a news release, “If there is one clear message that consumers are trying to send, it’s that the label has grown tired and uninteresting."

People typically make quick choices while racing around the grocery store. The average shopper purchases 61 items in 26 minutes. That doesn't leave much time to check the Nutrition Facts panel or list of ingredients, which provide the  best snapshot of the food's overall nutritional quality.

Will Symbols on the Front Inspire Healthier Choices?

In recent years, there has been an explosion of front-of-package food labeling efforts, from the failed "smart choices" label to the American Heart Association's Heart Check programs, along with shelf-marker programs such as NuVal and Guiding Stars in select grocery stores.

In general, symbols seem to help shoppers, but some symbols fail to account for total nutrition profile, says Milton Stokes, RD, owner of One Source Nutrition.

Front-of-package symbols are a step in the right direction, says author of Read It Before You Eat It, Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD. "Consumers are looking for quick answers but front of package doesn't tell the whole story -- you still need to turn over the package," she says.

Experts want one unified program with consistent messages on all labels but that will require the cooperation of all stakeholders.  

Goal: Healthier Eating

Seeking solutions to this problem are health experts, industry, Congress, the White House, FDA, and the Institute of Medicine.  

First Lady Michelle Obama has challenged the food industry and FDA to design an easy-to-understand, front-of-package food label that would help people make wiser decisions in the grocery store.  

In 2009, the FDA declared front-of-package labeling a top priority and pledged to establish science-based standards and voluntary guidelines for front-of-package nutrition labels. That hasn't happened yet.

This fall, the IOM is expected to deliver recommendations for front-of-package labels. Recently, Walmart pledged to reformulate its store-brand products, making them healthier, and to promote the healthfulness in an easy-to-understand label.

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