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Reading Food Labels Gets Easier

Food health rating programs aim to help grocery buyers make better choices.
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Supermarket Health Rating Systems continued...

In Harris Teeter's "yourwellness" program, color-coded wellness keys are placed on foods that meet the FDA's criteria for certain label terms. The markers distinguish foods that are "excellent" or "good" sources of particular nutrients, as well as foods that are free of fat, lactose, sodium, or sugar; low in sodium, fat, or calories; heart-healthy; lean; organic; vegan; or contain zero trans fats.

Even markets that don't have formal rating systems usually have some way to help consumers select healthier foods -- through newsletters, demonstrations, and/or shelf markers.

Other Food Rating Programs

Since 1995, the American Heart Association (AHA) has been trying to make heart-healthy grocery shopping easier with its heart check symbol. To qualify for the AHA Food Certification Program, a single serving of the food must, according to Food and Drug Administration criteria:

  • Contain no more than 3 grams of total fat
  • Contain no more than 1 gram of saturated fat
  • Contain no more than 20 grams of cholesterol
  • Contain no more than 480 milligrams of sodium
  • Contain at least 10% or more of one of these naturally occurring nutrients: protein, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, or iron.

About.com has an online Calorie Count Plus system that rates foods, on a scale of A+ to F, according to a formula that takes into account both healthy and not-so healthy components in the food, Hartley says. The food's nutrient density (that is, the number of nutrients per calories) is also taken into consideration. A registered dietitian makes the final rating determination by hand.

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.

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