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General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

[press release] Current nutrition labeling is hard to digest

Current nutrition labeling is hard to digest

From the 20 January 2015 McGill University press release

Study compares four types of nutrition labels, the least effective being the one currently required in Canada and the US.

Current government-mandated nutrition labeling is ineffective in improving nutrition, but there is a better system available, according to a study by McGill University researchers published in the December issue of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The researchers compared four different labeling systems and found that the Nutrition Facts label currently required on most food products in the US and Canada was least useable. That label, which lists the percent daily value of several nutrients, took more time to understand and led to nutrition choices hardly different from chance. Another label type, NuVal, enabled quick and nutritious choices. NuVal is a shelf sticker used in some American food markets, which indicates the overall nutritional value of each food item with a number from 1-100.

Resolving “nutrition conflicts”

“Food shoppers typically have a limited amount of time to make each food choice, and they find the Nutrition Facts labels to be confusing and difficult to use,” says Peter Helfer, lead author and PhD student in Psychology and Neuroscience at McGill. “One product may be low in fat, but high in sugar, while another product may be just the opposite. Nutrition Facts labels can highlight nutrition conflicts but fail to resolve them. Even educated and motivated shoppers have difficulty picking out the most nutritious product with these labels.”

NuVal scores are calculated by nutrition experts at several universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Northwestern, and emphasize both the positive and negative aspects of each food. By reducing nutritional content to a single number, NuVal labels resolve nutrition conflicts.

Two other labeling methods produced mixed results. The Traffic Light system used in the UK allowed for a bit more nutritious choices than chance. But it took more time to use, because the colors of several traffic lights have to be counted and compared. Labels that certify some foods as nutritious, but not others, are used in Denmark, Sweden, and Canada. These allowed quick decisions, but did not increase nutritious choices. “Such certification labels are not sufficiently discriminating to produce consistently better nutrition. They also create controversies about exactly where to draw the line between nutritious and harmful foods,” says co-author Thomas Shultz, Professor of Psychology and Computer Science at McGill.

The widespread availability of low-nutrition, high-calorie food is believed to be an important cause of an epidemic of obesity and associated diseases throughout the world. Shultz argues that “Empowering consumers to make healthier food choices with valid and useful nutrition labeling could help to stem this epidemic. If consumers have the information to make nutritious choices, this could nudge food sellers and producers to improve their products.”

Picture: compared labelling systems (%Daily Value, Traffic Light, NuVal, and Heart)

The effects of nutrition labeling on consumer food choice: a psychological experiment and computational model
Peter Helfer, Thomas R. Shultz
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Dec. 2014

January 23, 2015 Posted by | Nutrition, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Simple, Concise Messages About The Benefits Of Phytonutrients Would Help Consumers

From the 12 April 2012 article at Medical News Today

An expert panel at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Wellness 12 meeting urged the food industry to find simple yet powerful language to tell consumers about the many benefits of a diet rich in phytonutrients.

Phytonutrients are plant-based components that are thought to promote health, such as beta carotene and lycopene. They are typically found in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and teas.

During the discussion, the panelists noted that phytonutrients [chemicals from plants] are very complex, and care must be taken when promoting their benefits to avoid the image of a “magic bullet.” At the same time, consumers can grow weary of constantly changing nutritional recommendations, causing them to feel overwhelmed and possibly decide to forgo healthy eating altogether. …

…Diekman suggested promoting “strongly flavored, darkly colored” foods, and taking care to highlight the importance of phytonutrients as part of the whole food. Consumers should be encouraged to choose healthy plant-based foods because of how all the ingredients combine to produce health benefits.
Key Nutrient: Allicin
Sources: Garlic, Onions
Benefits: Heart health; Cancer prevention, helps prevent increased cholesterol
Key Nutrient: Limonin
Sources: Grapefruits, Lemons, Limes, Oranges
Benefits: Cancer prevention, helps prevent increased cholesterol, lung health
Key Nutrient: Lutein
Sources: Broccoli, Spinach, Kiwifruit, Lettuce
Benefits: Eye health…

April 10, 2012 Posted by | Nutrition | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robert J. Davis, Ph.D.: Top 10 Food Label Tricks to Avoid in 2012


How to understand and use the US Nutritional F...

Image via Wikipedia

Robert J. Davis, Ph.D.: Top 10 Food Label Tricks to Avoid in 2012

This slideshow presents the truth about many claims that seem healthy on the surface as

  • No trans fat – anything including at least .5 grams of fat per serving can legally be rounded down to zero
  • High fiber – many fibers have no health benefit, you’re almost always better off with natural fibers in fruit, vegetables, whole grains

Click here to see the entire slideshow


January 7, 2012 Posted by | Nutrition | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The entire approach to food based on nutrients is wrong

From an August 2011 article by   in

The science of nutrition is changing and not in the way you might expect. After years of “reductionist” thinking — where food has been viewed as the sum of its parts – a call to treat food as food has been sounded. No more poring over nutrition labels to calculate grams of fat or chasing down the latest go-to chemical – be it vitamin E, fish oil or omega-3. Instead we are being asked to call a potato a potato and a piece of steak, well, a piece of steak…

Read the article


August 28, 2011 Posted by | Nutrition | , , , | Leave a comment

Front-of-Package Nutrition Labeling — An Abuse of Trust by the Food Industry?

Sample Front-of-Package Label Adhering to the Nutrition Keys System Developed by the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute.

Sample Front-of-Package Label from the Traffic-Light System Used in Britain.


Excerpts from the New England Journal of Medicine 23 June 2011 Perspective

On January 24, 2011, two major food-industry trade associations, the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute, announced a new and voluntary nutrition-labeling system that major food and beverage companies would use on the front of packages to “help busy consumers make informed choices.” …
…This program, called Nutrition Keys, follows on the heels of an industry free-for-all in which different companies used different, and in many cases self-serving, symbols to communicate how healthful their products were. An example is the Smart Choices program, whereby industry established nutrition criteria that would qualify products for a special Smart Choices label. This enterprise was met with disbelief when products such as Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies qualified as Smart Choices,…
…At first glance, the industry action might seem positive — a single standardized system with objective nutrition information might guide better food choices. The industry plans to list the amount and percentage of the recommended daily value (%DV), when available, for calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugars….
…There are, however, major flaws in this approach. First, the timing of this action by the food industry is suspicious at best, and the move is being made in a political context where the industry is pitted against both government and the public health community. …
…Most troubling is the fact that the industry announced its own approach even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA have already commissioned an objective body, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), to convene an expert committee and issue recommendations for front-of-package labeling. The IOM committee is scheduled to release its final report this fall….

Related IOM Links

Includes History of nutrition labeling, Overview of Health and Diet in America, Scientific basis of front-of-package nutritionrating systems, and appendixes

  • Consumer labelling: Food fights (
  • Small step forward in global food labelling (Canadian Medical Association News, June 2011)
    “Global standards for “mandatory nutrition labelling” on the back of food packaging appear to be in the offing but standards for the front of packages appear to be a distant dream.The guidelines will be crafted this summer by the Codex Food Labelling Committee, which is part of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, created in 1963 by United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization to develop food standards, guidelines and codes of practice to protect consumer health and ensure fair trade practices with regard to food…….Proponents hope the back-of-package labels — which would articulate general information about such things as fat, protein, fibre, calorie content — will serve as an impetus to all nations to adopt official labelling requirements,  if only because they would soon become a requisite element of international trade…….Although several countries are experimenting with forms of front-of-packaging labelling, such as the United Kingdom, which  introduced a voluntary colour-coded traffic light system in 2007, (, no nation has mandatory regulations.”…
  • U.S. Seeks New Limits on Food Ads for Children (
  • Sunday Comic Strip: Isn’t Food One of the Ingredients? (

June 26, 2011 Posted by | Public Health | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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