Food label reform

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: January 28th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Understanding food labels can be a challenge for even the most dedicated consumers. But take heart, health-conscious shoppers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration may soon be taking a cue from their colleagues in the United Kingdom, which would make it easier to identify nutritious foods.

In the U.K., food manufacturers use a traffic light system to help shoppers identify the nutritional content of food. Under this voluntary program, foods are marked in accordance to the amount of saturated fat, total fat, sodium and added sugar they contain. Those with low amounts are green, moderate is amber and high is red.

Why is such a system necessary? Here in the United States, a labeling campaign backed by most of the leading food manufacturers has created some controversy. Called Smart Choices, it marks food packages with a green checkmark to indicate a healthy option. Trouble is, it gives a seal of approval to a plethora of products that nutritionists call horrible, including sugary cereals and sodium-heavy pre-packaged foods.

The FDA has expressed disapproval of the program and promised to come up with its own criteria for front-of-the-package labels by 2010. The agency’s leader cited the British traffic light system as a potential model for the effort.

So what should a savvy consumer do in the meantime? Experts say it’s not that hard: Just use your common sense. And be sure to read the entire label if you have doubts about a product’s nutritional value. Sometimes the front of the package doesn’t tell the entire story.