Developing consistency in front-of-pack labeling

by Allison Sebolt
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At the end of October, several food companies announced intentions to use a uniform front-of-pack nutrition labeling system called the Smart Choices Program on products beginning next year.

The Smart Choices Program was developed under the leadership of The Keystone Center, Keystone, Colo., a non-profit organization that helps create consensus solutions to public health programs. Representatives from a number of food companies, public health and nutrition organizations, academics and government agencies formed a coalition, which is also known as the Food and Nutrition Roundtable, that developed the Smart Choices Program.

"This effort has been extraordinary on two levels," said Eileen T. Kennedy, coalition participant and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. "First, it’s been a tremendous accomplishment to achieve consensus among a diverse group of influential stakeholders. Second, we’ve created a program that shows real promise in assisting people in making positive dietary changes to help enhance public health."

The Coca-Cola Co.; ConAgra Foods, Inc.; General Mills, Inc.; The Kellogg Co.; Kraft Foods Inc.; PepsiCo, Inc.; Unilever P.L.C.; and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. are all companies that likely will implement the program. Nestle S.A. joined the coalition more recently and is another company considering possible implementation of the program.

Smart Choices includes a symbol that identifies more nutritious choices within specific product categories and provides calorie information that identifies calories per serving and servings per container on front-of-pack. The goal of the program is to help consumers stay within their daily calorie needs.

To qualify for the symbol, products may not exceed standards for specific "nutrients to limit" and, for most categories, must also provide positive attributes: "nutrients

to encourage" or "food groups to encourage." The criteria were based in part on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Food and Drug Administration standards and reports from the Institute of Medicine. Specific criteria for 18 different product categories such as beverages, cereals, meats and dairy were established.

The nutrients to limit include total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars and sodium. Nutrients to encourage include calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, and vitamins A, C and E. Food groups to encourage includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy.

The work of the coalition in developing the program first began at a meeting in January 2007.

"The initial focus was expected to be food labeling more broadly, and very quickly these folks identified a shared concern about the proliferation of front-of-pack strategies for communicating nutrition to consumers," said Brad Sperber, director of the health and social policy practice area for The

Keystone Center. "There was a shared concern that ultimately the consumer will become confused, be forced to choose a message and a messenger to trust above others and that a uniform approach ultimately was going to be necessary to give consumers sufficient guidance in choosing better options."

Mr. Sperber said some of the main objectives of the coalition were transparency and that the scientific basis of the program should come from established scientific standards. Another objective of the group was to motivate healthier reformulation and product innovation over time.

Mr. Sperber said while The Keystone Center helped facilitate the development of the program thus far, the coalition will soon select another third-party coordinator to help implement the system in the marketplace.

Companies commit to the program

"We considered it a good opportunity to provide consumers with consistent and transparent information about food and beverage products that are more nutritious options for them," said Stephanie Childs, spokesperson for ConAgra Foods, Omaha. "We look at it as an opportunity to help consumers who are looking to get the best bang for their nutrition dollar and their grocery dollar. As consumers are looking for foods that meet their budgetary needs, there is also the opportunity to convey to them which products will help them meet their nutrition needs as well."

ConAgra already has incorporated information on its front-of-pack labeling showing how its products meet the requirements of the MyPyramid guidelines. In contrast, Ms. Childs said the Smart Choices symbol is really a better-for-you symbol serving a different purpose. Because the two icons serve different purposes, the Smart Choices symbol will appear along with the MyPyramid labeling on qualifying food products.

ConAgra anticipates about 300 of its products already meet the requirements for the program. Ms. Childs said ConAgra will reformulate and develop products with the intent of meeting the guidelines for Smart Choices.

Similarly, General Mills, Minneapolis, said it will continue to display its "Nutrition Highlights" information on front-of-pack along with the Smart Choices symbol. General Mills currently has six icons on the front panel of cereals to communicate nutrition information. General Mills also will reformulate products to meet the requirements of Smart Choices.

"We believe that companies like ours can make a difference, and we are confident we can play a powerful role in providing lower calorie, higher nutrient products to parents and their children," said Heidi Geller, spokesperson for General Mills. "General Mills was integrally involved from the beginning with our industry peers and with other leading voices on food, nutrition and health in developing this initiative based on existing science-based recommendations. We felt industry could help by agreeing to come together to streamline front-of-pack labeling with one simple, uniform and recognizable symbol providing calorie information and a quick method of helping consumers identify more nutritious choices across food categories."

Other front-of-pack labeling plans

In addition to the current labeling schemes ConAgra and General Mills have, Mars, Inc., which is part of the coalition, is going to be implementing Guideline Daily Amount nutrition labeling on all its products. The new label is called "What’s Inside," and will help consumers locate key nutrition information. The new labels will be rolled out in December and be on all Mars products by the end of 2010.

There is also the NuVal System, which is another nutrition rating system that gives food products a score of relative healthfulness on a 1 to 100 scale based on an algorithm considering different nutrients and nutrition factors. This system uses similar scientific standards to make its conclusions as the Smart Choices Program uses.

With so many ways of judging the relative healthfulness of foods, the challenge for the Smart Choices Program will be to become the established industry standard.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, November 11, 2008, starting on Page 33. Click
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