Food labels

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(HOST) Commentator Rachel Johnson has been contemplating something she’s calling "Label Mania" and she wonders if we really need so many flashy labels to steer us toward healthier foods.

(JOHNSON) I gladly spend hours at the farmer’s market but supermarket shopping is one of my least favorite chores. By sticking to the store’s perimeter, I can fill my cart with produce, fish, meat or poultry, dairy and bread and then hopefully head home. But lately, if I need to venture into the center aisles, I feel like I’m heading into the Wild West. I’m barraged with bright labels luring me to products with terms like "Sensible Snacking," "Smart Choices Made Easy" and "Eat smart."

While the labels and symbols are supposed to help make it easier to choose healthy foods, I’m afraid their sheer proliferation only creates more confusion. No wonder Dr. David Katz from Yale University’s School of Medicine suggested labeling junk food with a "scarlet J".

So why the label free-for-all? Food companies know nutrition sells. That’s why you’ll find manufacturers like Kraft, Unilever, General Mills and PepsiCo (just to name a few) creating official-looking "healthy" symbols and plastering them on snacks, cereals, crackers and other foods. But often the symbols don’t tell the whole story and only highlight a food’s healthful qualities while ignoring the less desirable ones. On the box of one popular breakfast cereal bright banners hype that it’s low in fat, fortified with vitamins and an excellent source of iron, but almost half of its calories come from sugar.

Simpler, more uniform labeling might be on the way – someday. Last November, the consumer watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to design a national set of easy-to-use symbols to help consumers quickly identity healthier foods. Yale’s Dr. Katz is developing an Overall Nutrition Quality index score to rank all foods for their nutrition and health value. We both agree that you shouldn’t need a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry to go supermarket shopping.

But it took the FDA ten years to implement labels for the amount of trans fats in foods – and at that rate I wouldn’t count on a uniform system anytime soon. But do you really need symbols to tell you what to eat? After all I don’t see fruits and vegetables – well-known keys to a healthy diet – sprouting labels. So when you navigate the supermarket aisles, remember that no healthy label can substitute for good sense.

Focus on less processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy products while limiting the number of overly processed foods like sweetened cereals, sugary drinks, chips, cookies, candy and white bread in your cart. Most importantly, don’t think you can eat more of something just because it’s labeled a "Sensible Solution." That would be … well, senseless.

Nutritionist Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to Eating Well magazine.

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