Star Ratings Could Make Nutrition Simple, But Manufacturers Are Jerks About It


All food packaging is covered in figures that tell us everything from how many grams are in the suggested serving size to the percentage of our daily recommended amount of Riboflavin, but they aren’t much good if no one understands what the hell they mean. Now, at the request of Congress, the Institute of Medicine has come up with a food labeling system that’s only slightly more complicated than stamping the box with a smiley face or a frowney face. The labels could be a huge help for Americans who want to eat healthy but don’t have time to spend hours anyalyzing nutritional labels. Of course, food manufacturers aren’t going for it.

According to the New York Times, the idea behind the new system is that it would be as easy to interpret as seeing an Energy Star label on an appliance — which is perhaps why the prototype uses stars. The report proposes including a circle with space for three stars above on the front of all food packaging. The number of calories and serving size go inside the circle, and the food would get one star each for containing less than a certain level of sugar, sodium, or trans fats. The group chose to highlight these nutrients because they’re most closely associated with illnesses like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Products like soda and candy would automatically get no stars, as would foods that have a ridiculously high amount of one of the nutrients (for example, lard can’t earn a star for containing no sugar).

Government agencies are looking to implement a simpler, standardized way of quickly letting consumers know if a food is healthy, though the nutrition label would still be on the side of the box for those who want more information. Naturally, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a group that represents major food companies, is against the new system because the front of box labels they’re already using are working extremely well (according to them). Scott Faber, a vice president of Grocery Manufacturers of America, says:

“We have a road-tested, ready-to-roll front-of-pack system that is already in the marketplace. We should not keep consumers waiting. We should provide them more nutrition information on the front of their packages now.”

However, critics say the manufacturers’ Facts Up Front labeling plan is just throwing more confusing nutritional information at customers. Like the system recommended by the Institute of Medicine, Facts Up Front shows the amount of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugars, but it gives the information in grams. Seeing that a food has 500 mg of sodium and 20 g of sugar doesn’t have the same impact on consumers as seeing an empty space where a star should be.

Though those in government say they’re interested in improving food labeling, they aren’t expected to move quickly on the report’s recommendation. Instead, we’ll probably see more talk about fighting obesity and improving Americans’ eating habits, without any new steps to help consumers cut through misleading information on packaging and figure out if a product is healthy or not.

Label Plan Offered to Rate Food Nutrition [NYT]

Image via Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.

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