New Food Labels: Confusing Or Helpful?

There's going to be some new symbols on processed food packages in your grocery store. Food manufacturers and grocery stores have teamed up to put nutrition information on the front of packages so consumers can make healthier choices. But some experts say the new labels might be more confusing than helpful.

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Coming soon to a grocery store near you: some new labeling on processed food packages. Food manufacturers and grocery stores have teamed up to put nutrition information on the front of packages so consumers can make healthier choices.

But as NPR's April Fulton reports, some experts say the new labels might be more confusing than helpful.

APRIL FULTON: Food manufacturers have voluntarily decided to put little white boxes on the front of the food package. One will show calories, one will show saturated fat, one will show salt, and one will show sugars. These are things that are bad for you. These things contribute to health problems, and these are the boxes that health experts and the federal government want manufacturers to put on food.

But food makers have their own ideas. They decided to add two more boxes to the other four. Those new boxes will show things that are good for you, like fiber or potassium.

Kelly Brownell runs the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. He says people won't know what to make of all these boxes.

Dr. KELLY BROWNELL (Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity): Research has shown that the typical person lingers over a particular food item for only about three seconds, so to expect them to make use of a lot of symbols, I think, is wishful thinking.

FULTON: In fact, Brownell and others think that labels should be simpler: no numbers, just three colors - red, yellow and green - to show consumers what to watch out for.

Scott Faber of the Grocery Manufacturers Association helped developed the food labels. He says consumers want nutrition information, but they want both the good and the bad, and they want specific numbers in the boxes, because they don't want to be told what to eat.

Mr. SCOTT FABER (Vice President for Federal Affairs, Grocery Manufacturers Association): It's not our place or government's place to tell them how a particular food fits into their diets.

FULTON: The Food and Drug Administration has been working with the industry on new labels, but those talks broke down over what information to include and what to leave out.

Later this year, the Institute of Medicine will come out with its own version of what the labels should look like. Meanwhile, the food industry is planning a $50 million campaign to promote their new food labels.

April Fulton, NPR News, Washington.

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