Reading Food Labels Gets Easier

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

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

You know you should get in the habit of reading food labels when you shop for groceries, but it's not always easy. When you're in a hurry, it's easy to grab familiar foods without checking much more than the front of the package. And with so many foods to choose from -- and so much confusing information on labels - it can be hard to make choices with confidence.

Consumers are confused and not totally comfortable reading labels because the information on the label does not make it clear how it relates to national health recommendations," says Mary Hartley, MPH, RD, nutritionist for Calorie Count Plus, a food-scoring program at the web site.

The fact is that some of the claims on the fronts of the packages don't tell the whole story, says Supermarket Savvy newsletter editor Linda McDonald, RD.

"Many packages trumpet the benefit of a single attribute, like no trans fats, while ignoring other important information that consumers need to know, like how much saturated fat or added sodium is in that trans fat-free product," McDonald says.

The good news is that some grocery chains, food companies, and other groups are implementing food scoring programs aimed at making it easier to choose wisely. These programs range from icons on the front of packages, to markers on store shelves, to online programs in which foods are scored according to their healthfulness.

How the Scoring Systems Work

In these scoring systems, foods are scored according to their nutritional profiles for both healthy ingredients (like nutrients, fiber, protein quality, and whole grains) and not-so healthy ones (like saturated and trans fats, added sugars, salt, and cholesterol). The scores allow consumers to compare different types of the same food within a category (for example, breakfast cereals).

Most systems use a mathematical formula that takes certain nutritional factors into account and generates a score. These formulas vary from system to system; the exact formulas have generally not been made public for fear they could be replicated.

Experts warn that scoring systems are not foolproof. Some say that, depending on the criteria used to score foods, some healthy foods might actually score poorly. For example, vegetable juice could get a low score because of its high sodium content, and yogurt with added fruit could score low because it contains added sugar.

Supermarket Health Rating Systems

One of the newest nutrition rating programs is the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI), developed by David Katz, MD, chair of the Yale Griffin Prevention Research Center along with a group of nutrition and health scientists. The ONQI rates food on a scale from 1-100, with 100 being the healthiest.

In August 2008, ONQI scores are expected to appear on shelf markers in many of the 13,000 Topco supermarkets (Wegmans, IGA, Hy-Vee, and Food City).Scores are also slated to show up on Topco brands, and to be available online. Consumers will be able to search for their favorite foods and brands online to see how they scored.

"The online option allows us to provide consumers with deeper levels of functionality, additional information and explanation on food scoring, diet recommendations, and how to use the scoring system for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity," says Katz.

In 2006, the New England chain Hannaford Brothers became the first grocer to launch a food scoring program. Their proprietary program, called "Guiding Stars," was developed by a group of nutrition scientists. Hannaford plans to license the nutrition navigation system to supermarket chains, vendors, health care groups and anyone else interested in helping people make nutritious food choices.

"At Hannaford, we evaluate each food and beverage based on the information from the nutrition facts panel and list of ingredients within a 100-calorie serving," says Caren Epstein, communications director for Hannaford.

Hannaford presents the results on a scale of 0-3 stars, with 3 being the healthiest. Hannaford has scored more than 25,500 foods and beverages.

"Our customers love the program and it has helped them make better food choices within certain categories and teach their children about good nutrition," says Epstein.