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Advocates believe that the government and industry are too cozy, and that food companies are reluctant to overhaul food labels for fear of their profits being hurt.

“It’s against the industry’s interest to help the consumer make better choices because then they’ll sell less food,” said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “If the population is going to lose weight, it’s going to eat less food, so that means less business for them.”

There’s no shortage of ideas on how to improve the label. A recent contest by the University of California, Berkeley and Good Magazine yielded 60 colorful new designs.

A familiar theme popped up: red, yellow and green colors of a traffic light to indicate whether a food is good or bad. Another offered thumbs up and thumbs down on nutrients, depending on how much.

Manufacturers don’t think a stoplight system would work because most foods have a mix of nutrients and diets are not the same for everyone, Hildwine said.

“A color-coded scheme would not be as helpful to consumers as a fact-based approach,” she said.

The winning design was created by Renee Walker, whose label is topped by a large blocks of color above the nutrient listing, with each block representing an ingredient. For example, a jar of peanut butter would typically have a big box for peanuts, a smaller box for sugar, and other blocks for other ingredients.

The FDA has long avoided putting qualitative judgments about food on labels in favor of a simple listing of macronutrients, said contest judge and Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael Jacobson.

Before the FDA first introduced the nutrition facts label in 1992, choosy Americans puzzled over a tiny printed listing of ingredients on packages to help determine what to feed their families.

As a result, Americans often relied on gut feelings to choose their diets at a time when the obesity epidemic was taking root.

Dr. David Kessler served as FDA commissioner during what he called a “battle royale” over the first label.

“Every change is a battle with the food industry,” said Kessler. “The food label that we implemented _ did it harm the food industry in any way? No. In fact, I’m sure they profited from it.”

Kessler, now a University of California, San Francisco professor and author, says the label is due for an update.

Like many experts, he’d like to see the new label address how much ingredients are processed.

A pie-chart could, for example, show how much of a jar of tomato sauce is from actual tomatoes, and how much is sugar, fats, sodium, water and whatever else may be in it.

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