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Guiding America to healthier food choices?

A trip to the grocery store can be an overwhelming experience. With tens of thousands of products to choose from, how can a consumer decide which are best? While the Nutrition Facts label points out important nutritional features of each product using a consistent format, many food companies are turning to front-of-the-package (FOP) labeling and grocery chains are implementing at-shelf labeling to quickly and easily help consumers make healthy choices. Each uses different rating systems in an effort to provide a simplified tool for consumers. A new online rating system, GoodGuide.com, rates a variety of brand labels, not only on nutritional content, but adds the dimensions of environmental performance such as energy usage, and social performance such as labor practices. GoodGuide’s database of products is available through its website, by text messaging the product bar code, or through downloading an iPhone application. Thus technology-savvy consumers can have access to each product’s information while shopping.

With all of this information available, will consumers make healthier choices? That remains to be seen. Little research has been conducted on whether FOP or at-shelf labeling will result in consumer diets that are more nutrient-dense or lower in calories. In an effort to increase diets with high nutrient ratings, will consumers consume diets that are lower in nutrients or beneficial food components that are not included in the rating system? With a variety of rating schemes in the marketplace, will consumers become more confused? Will the addition of the environmental and social dimensions simplify the decision-making process, or make it more complex? How will the consumer diet be affected by the presence of the environmental and social dimension? For example, will a consumer choose a product with more calcium, but with a low rating for labor practices?

While rating systems and labeling are designed to increase healthful food choices, they do not take into account three major factors in a consumer food decision: price, taste and convenience. Thus, consumers still need to factor in their own formulas for product choices. While front-of-package and at-shelf labels may be useful, turn the package over—the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient labels still have a great deal of useful information that can help you find the product that is right for you.

nancycohen1Nancy Cohen, PhD, RD, LDN
Professor and Head, Dept. of Nutrition
Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst

4 Responses

  1. If you want to learn more about using Nutrition Facts on the food label go to http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/label.html or http://www.cartoonnetwork.com/promos/200804_fda/index.html

  2. Dear Nancy,
    I think Nuval is the answer, asuming it eventually gets wide use. I’m sure you’d be aware of it in your position. What are your views on Nuval?

  3. Nuval is one of many nutrient rating systems in place or planned for the near future. It uses an algorithm based on more nutrients than the Goodguide system uses, and is present in certain grocery chains. It will be interesting to see what sorts of dietary changes consumers make as a result of using one or more nutrient rating systems, and whether it will result in overall better dietary practices.

  4. Make healthy choices is just part of the equation to have a partial solution to obesity and related issues.
    People should also be aware that to improve their health they also need more exercise and this factor can make a great difference.

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