The Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to develop a singular set of symbols that would identify a food's healthfulness. Currently, the marketplace is flooded with symbols, like PepsiCo's "Smart Spot" and Kraft's "Sensible Solution." Various health-based organizations also attempt to help consumers find appropriate foods with tools like the American Heart Association's heart-check icon.
"The supermarket is teeming with competing 'healthy food' symbols that run the gamut from highly helpful to fatally flawed," said CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson.
A national set of symbols would eliminate confusion, Jacobson said. He points to systems in place in the United Kingdom and Sweden as possible models the FDA could study. The U.K.'s traffic-light system has green, amber and red circles to highlight the amount of fat, sugar and salt in a product. Sweden's uses a green keyhole to distinguish the healthiest products in a given category. While the U.K. system has come under fire there for being too simplistic and not accounting for recommended daily allowances of nutrients, Jacobson said he likes the Swedish model. "People can simply look for that on labels and it doesn't offend companies whose products deserve a skull and crossbones."
Jacobson also gave high marks to the system developed by Portland, Maine-based Hannaford Supermarkets. The chain's "expert scientific advisory panel" developed Guiding Stars, giving each product zero to three stars based on its nutritional composition. The proprietary formula considers vitamin and mineral content, amount of fiber and whole grains, as well as fats, cholesterol, sugar and sodium. "We very consciously avoided recommending a particular system or particular symbol," Jacobson said, "but want the FDA to commence a rulemaking process that would examine a variety of options, get public comments, etc."
Many critics, however, fear having a government agency spearhead such a project. They have pointed out that after all the time and money the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent developing the new MyPyramid food guidance, the private sector might have been able to devise something simpler and more relevant to average users. "I have trepidations about the FDA's being in charge," Jacobson acknowledged. "An approach that I think makes sense would be for Congress or the FDA to commission the National Academy of Sciences to research the various options and recommend an excellent system," he said.
CSPI has not yet received a substantive response from the FDA. "I suspect it'll take congressional pressure to blast FDA off the dime on this issue," he said. CSPI has the support of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is incoming chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "Only with reliable, consistent and easy-to-understand information can consumers take charge of their own health," Harkin said. "I'm hopeful that the FDA will respond positively to CSPI's petition. If not, I may well seek legislative action to address this concern."