When Peggy Petersen goes to the supermarket she usually spends more than an hour reading labels and comparing brands. The mother of three has a 13-year-old daughter with a severe weight problem, who must follow a very restricted diet: The foods she eats must be low in sodium, fat and sugar.
It's a time-consuming and confusing task because product packages frequently contain health claims such as "97% fat free" and "no cholesterol" even though the item may indeed be high in saturated fat or sodium.
The federal government has proposed a food-labeling initiative that would develop clear definitions for such confusing marketing terms. It also will require manufacturers to provide information on the actual levels of fiber, sodium, cholesterol, calories from fat and saturated fat in foods. Eventually, it is hoped that foods will contain uniform nutrition information, based on standardized serving sizes.
But these new regulations aren't expected to be in use until late next year. In the meantime, Ralphs Grocery Co. has begun a new product identification program that organizers hope will assist health-conscious consumers locate foods that are low in calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium. The program has been received lukewarmly by health experts who believe that while it is a step in the right direction, it has the potential to further confuse an already bewildered consumer.
"Store nutrition labeling is not all the information a person needs," says Pat Harper, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Assn. "All the foods (in the supermarket) aren't labeled, so it's not a complete system yet. People need to be educated about the (various) features of a food. If they're not, they'll be confused."
On the other hand, shoppers like Peggy Petersen just love it.
"It saved a lot of time," Petersen says. "I trust supermarkets more than the advertisers, because if they mislead you, they know you won't shop there. But I don't think the food industry will like it because a lot of the unhealthier stuff will be pushed aside."
This idea of third-party pressure on manufacturers to develop more healthful foods is also viewed by dietitians as among the positive attributes of supermarket nutrition labeling programs, such as Ralphs' NutriGuide. "Companies won't want to be stigmatized," says Harper, "so if it's just a matter of a few milligrams, they may reformulate their products."
She explains that these labeling programs can be useful for people who have a particular health problem requiring specific, dietary modification. "It helps to flag the foods that are appropriate." But for shoppers with more than one health problem, such as high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, Harper recommends further label reading because the shelf tags typically highlight the most predominant benefit, such as low sodium, even though a food may be very high in fat. (As is the case with dry-roasted or no-salt-added nuts and seeds.)
The NutriGuide product classification program was first started in St. Louis, Mo., in 1979 to respond to shoppers' requests for nutrition information about foods for specific diets. It is offered to supermarkets throughout the country by Creative Data Services, a shelf label producer. Using established FDA criteria, a registered dietitian evaluates and categorizes more than 2,000 grocery items. In the store, these are identified by one of three brightly colored shelf tags. Manufacturers are not charged an evaluation fee and FDA has reviewed and allowed the program.
Earlier this year, the FDA refused to give approval to an American Heart Assn. program "HeartGuide," which based on AHA guidelines for sodium, fat and cholesterol content would place a "seal of approval" on product packages. The controversy centered around AHA's plans to charge manufacturers substantial administration and education fees for participation in this labeling program. Critics believed the program would penalize smaller companies that couldn't afford the costs.
"In some categories it's hard to find some (products) that are better than others," says Janet Brooks, product manager for NutriGuide. She explains that any manufacturer may submit nutrition information to the company for evaluation. "We want regional, local, big-name brands, private labels and store brands," she says, adding that NutriGuide is "not a replacement for advice from health professionals. We see it as a real tool."
"Low- and reduced-calorie" foods are identified by yellow shelf tags based on FDA's current labeling requirements. A "low-calorie" food is one that contains no more than 40 calories per serving and no more than 0.4 calories per gram; a "reduced-calorie" product offers at least one-third fewer calories than the product it substitutes or resembles. According to FDA, these foods must compare both versions on their labels.