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Reading Food Labels Gets Easier

Food health rating programs aim to help grocery buyers make better choices.

Other Food Rating Programs continued...

Further, many food companies have developed front-of-package icons to reflect healthier foods, like Pepsi’s "Smart Spot" and Kraft’s "Sensible Solutions" programs.  Pepsi, Kraft, and many others companies such as Coca-Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Unilever, and WalMart are interested in participating with the Smart Choices program and retiring their individual healthy food programs.

While foods bearing these icons are among the healthiest in their product line, experts say it's important for consumers to see these health promotions in the context of a healthy diet. 

 "Healthy icons on foods like baked chips and diet soda imply these foods are healthy, and while they are better than fried chips or sweet soda, they are not as nutritious and good for you as a piece of fruit," says McDonald.

She advises that consumers not rely on the front of package, but turn it over and read the nutrition facts panel to get the whole picture.

Limitations of Food Scoring Systems

No one questions the need to educate shoppers on the healthiest food choices. But there are so many different scoring programs that some experts fear this goal is not being accomplished.

The watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) thinks there are too many different logos, icons, and shelf markers, and has petitioned the government to establish a uniform system.

"Consumers need to be skeptical," says CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson. "Some of the information on the fronts of packages or the shelf markers suggests the foods are probably better than other foods, but there are flaws and inconsistencies in how all the different parties are scoring foods -- which is why we need the government to take the lead."

Phil Lempert, supermarket guru for The Today Show, says nutrition rating systems are actually making grocery shopping more confusing.

"Branded logos with terms like 'smart' or 'healthier choice' lead consumers to purchase these foods," he says. "Yet obesity has gone up in the U.S., and more ratings systems is not the answer -- we need one universal system that is transparent."

NuVal developer Katz agrees, but says that it would take years for the FDA to implement a food rating system. 

"The way to fix the problem is open-market competition for the best possible system, which we think we have developed with the NuVal, a state-of-the-art sophisticated scoring system based on science," he says.

Food companies also have concerns with some of the scoring formulas, because they have little room to dispute the ratings of foods.

The issue is further compounded by those who question the health value of foods that are heavily fortified with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, or that contain artificial sweeteners. Some think organic foods should receive extra points, while others just find the rating systems too complicated.

"It is great to know a food is healthy, but we have to educate consumers how we made these decisions so they can also apply the same thought process when selecting foods without rating systems," says Hartley.

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