Food Labels: Reading Label Gets Easier (cont.)

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. 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

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."

ONQI 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 ONQI, 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.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for a quick trip through the grocery store, these food rating programs can help you make better choices. But experts warn that you still need to look at labels and consider foods within the context of your whole diet to make wise decisions.

"I applaud all of the food companies, grocery stores, and rating programs that help consumers select healthier products, but consumers still need to put the information into context of a healthy diet," says McDonald.

Originally Published September 12, 2007.
Medically Reviewed January 18, 2008.

SOURCES: Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Mary Hartley, MPH, RD, nutritionist, Calorie Count Plus, a food-scoring program at Linda McDonald, RD, editor, Supermarket Savvy newsletter. Caren Epstein, communications director, Hannaford Brothers. American Heart Association web site. Phil Lempert, food trends editor, The Today Show. David Katz, MD, MPH, director, Yale Prevention Research Center; professor, Yale University; developer, ONQI. Hannaford web site.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/28/2008