BOSTON: A recent trend by food industry giants to eliminate or phase out certain ingredients is certainly a partial victory for consumers demanding healthier supermarket shelves and restaurants. Examples cited in a recent Associated Press story on the subject were PepsiCo’s brominated vegetable oil in Gatorade, Starbucks’ red dye derived from crushed insects, and artificial dyes and high-fructose corn syrup in products made or sold by Kraft, Kroger,and Chick-fil-A.
“It is an indication that consumers are exercising democratic rights, getting heard, and that is all to the good,” said Marion Nestle, the veteran nutrition professor at New York University.
But such victories are anecdotal, and remain far from sweeping national reforms to inform consumers about nutrition. As Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told me, the shelves remain full of “countless deceptions,” so many that the people who can be duped include food marketing researchers themselves.
Ask Gina Mohr of Colorado State University. Two months ago, she brought home what she thought was “natural” ice cream from the supermarket, but her husband said it did not taste right. Turned out it was frozen dessert with artificial flavors that she views as unhealthy. “For families who are often rushed when shopping, I’m sure these mistakes happen a lot more,” Mohr said.
Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and vice chair of an Institute of Medicine panel on front-of-package food labeling, talked about a muffin that was reformulated to be advertised as “trans-fat free.” She said, ”It looked good in the ad. However, it still had close to 500 calories and 500 milligrams of sodium.”
When a “trans-fat free” muffin can still be diabetes in a wrapper, effective food labeling is imperative.
Indeed, in the first year of the Obama administration, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the agency would work on new “front-of-pack” labeling to ensure “consumers are not enticed by claims, labels, or symbols to believe that a food is healthier than it really is.”
But not a word has been heard since then; the food industry is notorious for lobbying against labeling that suggests products may not be healthy. The agency last month did announce a proposal to virtually ban artificial trans fats from food, but that is only part of the fight against saturated fats, salt, and sugar in a nation with some of the worst health statistics in the developed world.
The current system of nutrition labels does not offer enough context for busy parents, eat-on-the-run workers, or seniors with acute health issues. Nor does it account for the wide range of basic literacy in the United States. Lichtenstein’s panel two years ago recommended that the FDA and the Department of Agriculture implement a single, standard system that can convey a product’s level of healthfulness “without written information.”
Such a system could be in the form of a “stoplight”: green for good, yellow for maybe, and red for unhealthy. Or it could be in the form of number or star ratings, with the highest numbers or most stars denoting the healthiest food. Studies over the past two years in Europe and the United States, including those conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Business School and one done on Hannaford’s Guiding Stars program, indicated that star-ratings systems work. We should implement them on a national scale.
Mohr said the current system still puts too much responsibility on consumers to decipher the health value of foods, especially when the removal of some ingredients may be cosmetic. She noted that high-fructose corn syrup has proved to be no more harmful than traditional forms of sugar.
“It would be naive to think companies that sell sweetness are not going to sell sweetness,” Mohr said. “What we don’t know is whether companies simply replace syrup with other kinds of sugar that still add up to the same thing.” That is a red flag that should give the green light to a new system, whether by numbers, stars, or stoplight.
Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.