Standardized nutrition

by Allison Sebolt
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Today when a consumer picks up or searches for a packaged food, there are various nutritional rating systems or symbols indicating the relative healthfulness of the food. The Sensible Solutions logo from Kraft Foods Inc., the Guiding Stars from Hannaford Brothers, Topco’s use of the ONQI system, the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark — the list goes on. So how is a consumer supposed to understand what all these systems mean?

The Food and Drug Administration is in the early stages of looking into the proliferation of symbols and sign posting schemes after a petition was issued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and there even have been legislative requests to establish either one system for all industry to use or to set guidelines for private programs.

"If there was one front-of-package logo that everybody used and everybody agreed on, I think that would be helpful," said Fergus Clydesdale, food and science department head at the University of Massachusetts.

The Keystone Center, a non-profit organization headquartered in Keystone, Colo., that is involved in various science-based policy issues, has been facilitating The Keystone Food and Nutrition Roundtable, which "brings together leaders from industry, academia, the public health community and government to provide input into the steady development and improvement of comprehensive, science-based strategies to help address the nation’s food and nutrition challenges."

The end result is expected to come in the form of front-of-package icon development and the discussion is expected to end by this fall, according to The Keystone Center. The first meeting of the group was in January 2007, and a final report is expected to be released in January 2009.

The Food and Nutrition Roundtable’s current focus is three-fold: to use dietary guidelines and other authoritative sources to develop criteria and determine how they would be applied to food and beverage products; to plan and conduct consumer research to evaluate the effectiveness of certain front-of-package scenarios; and to consider implementation needs for whatever program is recommended in the end. Such implementation needs could include governance, multi-sector participation, consumer education, impact evaluation, and resources.

Currently, the Food and Nutrition Roundtable has representatives from Unilever, ConAgra Foods, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., The Kellogg Co., General Mills, Inc., Kraft Foods Inc., Hannaford Brothers, Coca-Cola Co., Mars Snackfood, PepsiCo, Inc. as well as groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Diabetes Association, the National Dairy Council, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Heart Association. There are about 35 parties involved in the effort altogether.

"The group’s objective is to be able to develop a system that is implementable and sustainable," said Brad Sperber, director of health and social policy practice for The Keystone Center.

The Keystone Center said the roundtable provides a neutral forum for learning different perspectives about issues on the policy agenda and for addressing timely issues that don’t have a venue for dialogue as well as a chance to work collaboratively and deepen understanding among stakeholders. Mr. Sperber said it is very much a multi-lateral effort to devise a program that may be widely used. He said the group has conducted extensive surveying of the marketplace to consider various types of approaches or strategies to develop a nutritional profiling system for uniform front-of-pack labeling.

"Really what it’s doing is trying to summarize the nutritional label in a logo because not that many consumers read and understand the nutrition label itself," said Mr. Clydesdale, who is also a member on the roundtable.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 10, 2008, starting on Page 37. Click here to search that archive.

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