Eat This, Not That: An Energy Star Label For Food

Nutrition labels have a lot of information—too much perhaps. What if the fronts of food packages had a simple, easy-to-understand system that let you know if they were healthy or not?

The government's Energy Star label is wildly simple to use; consumers may not know exactly why an Energy Star-labeled product received its designation, but they do realize that it's more energy-efficient than its counterparts. The nutrition labeling system, on the other hand, is somewhat esoteric—figuring out whether one food item is more nutritious than another based on calories, fat content, sodium, sugar, and any number of other factors isn't always easy. But simple front-of-package label—designed much like Energy Star—could teach confused shoppers how to pick healthy items, without the need for calorie-counting.

The idea comes from the Institute of Medicine, which put out a report this month detailing the qualities that would make a front-of-package labeling system effective. Among them: simplicity, having nutrition information translated for consumers, a scaled ranking system of which foods are healthy, and supported with names and easily identifiable symbols.

Ultimately, the report recommends a three-point system that rates foods based on saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and added sugars (more points means a healthier product). The ratings would be placed in a standard symbol on the food package, a la Energy Star. And most ambitiously, the report suggests that the label be placed on every single grocery products.

The recommendations sound reasonable enough, but not everyone is enthused. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has its own nutrition labeling system, dubbed "Facts Up Front," and appears to consider the IOM's recommendations threatening. In a statement, the GMA explained:

Consumers have told us that they want simple and easy-to-use information, and that they should be trusted to make decisions for themselves and their families. The most effective programs are those that consumers embrace, and consumers have said repeatedly that they want to make their own judgments, rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat. That is the guiding principle of Facts Up Front, and why we have concerns about the untested, interpretive approach suggested by the IOM committee.

The Facts Up Front Label—seen here—isn't exactly as simple as the IOM's recommendations; it's more like a condensed version of a standard nutrition label. It's better than nothing, but it's no Energy Star. The GMA shouldn't worry too much, though; both the USDA and FDA have to agree to the IOM's recommendations before it goes into effect—and that's not so likely to happen.

[Image: Flickr user Mista Yuck]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Karen

    We need to first define the confusion. The confusion starts with the marketing efforts by the processing industry. We first need to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with the government, and the food processing industry and clearly define what is healthy. If you were to take all of the products that had ingredients we can not pronounce off the shelves. we would have less confusion. Then take all of the products off of the shelf that have unsafe oils, hydrogenated oils, synthetic sweeteners, more than one sugar, and genetially modified foods, along with BPA lined boxes tins and plastics and there probably would not be much confusion at all. 
    People in general need to take more responsibility for what they are eating. If they took the time to research what they put into their body, they would stop eating most of what needs a non-confusion label. 

    Whole foods that are grown from the earth with sunlight and water does not require non-confusion labelling! 
    Cheers to your health! 

  • Eric Rice

    I prefer to build my diet around the idea that if there's somewhere to put a label, I should look for a better alternative. Obviously that attitude doesn't solve a host of socio-economic problems around food access, public education, etc, but I always feel like the "better labels" approach is more of a band-aid to the fundamental problems of food in our society - over-industrialization, over-engineering, under-education, and poor access. How do you create a label to value a bunch of kale over a can of soup? What does the soup-maker have to say about that? And how do you factor in how the kale was grown? Are the labels really based on the best science we have (which is more recently telling us that the "low-fat 90's" were as harmful to our health as all that bacon), or will we find this valuation system to be as flawed as every other nutritional guideline, ever, and have to ditch it when the next round of food wisdom comes out?