I have written in this space before about my strong belief in the role of the supermarket as a nutrition learning laboratory and in the role of the supermarket dietitian as a community nutrition educator. One of the most important nutrition education tools in the supermarket is the Nutrition Panel. Dietitians have used it since it first appeared on the back of food labels in 1994, and many consumers have relied on it to help them make food choices.
Over the past several years, as the obesity crisis has taken over the nation, various front-of-package (FOP) food rating systems have debuted here in the United States and in other countries as well - notably Britain and the European Union. Although meant to help consumers make healthy choices (usually by flagging high amounts of certain "unhealthy" nutrients such as sodium and fat), the plethora of FOP labeling systems, all based on different criteria, also confuse consumers.
I think everyone now agrees that FOP labeling is a good idea - a quick tool for busy consumers who don't have time to read the whole Nutrition Panel or find the few pieces of information they want from the abundance of data presented. But like all good ideas that well-meaning people and organizations rush to bring to life, eventually benefits are overshadowed by confusion - in other words, too many cooks in the pot.
All of this is to say that I am very pleased to know that food retailers and food manufacturers have seen the handwriting on the supermarket shelf - and have recognized there's too much of it!
Last week, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) announced plans to join forces in developing a simple, evidence-based, transparent, Dietary Guidelines-based FOP nutrition labeling system designed to help shoppers make food choices based on information such as calories, sodium and saturated fat per serving. (See full announcement here.)
Thanks to this unprecedented retailer-manufacturer partnership, early next year information on calories and key nutrients will appear in an easy-to-understand format on the front label of many of the country's most popular food and beverage products. GMA and FMI also will provide consumers with information on nutrients needed to build a "nutrient-dense" diet and on "shortfall nutrients" that are under-consumed in the diets of most Americans.
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have been quick to praise the GMA-FMI initiative. For example, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) says he "applauds the food and beverage industry's voluntary commitment to update their labels and provide easy-to-read uniform nutrition information on the front of packages. By providing information on key nutrients in a more clear and straightforward way, we will empower families to build healthy diets. This move puts families, rather than the government, on the frontlines in combating obesity."
And it gives dietitians - especially those who work in supermarkets - another tool for creating on-the-spot nutrition learning opportunities.