Be a Nutrition Know-It-All: Your Guide to the New Packaging Labels

shaun-chavis
By Shaun Chavis
Follow me on Twitter
You can't walk into a grocery store without seeing bolded claims adorning every box, package, and wrapper in the store. Low fat! High fiber! Smart choices! Though Nutrition Facts labels don't lie, it's easy to get distracted by these misleading claims.
But just as your head is beginning to spin, there are several new nutrition labeling programs—some on packages, some on shelves—that are trying to address the need for simple nutrition information and direction. Do any of these help you if you’re trying to lose weight? Maybe, but whether you’re counting calories, carbs, fat, or fiber, I think it's important to rely on the good ol' Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients list. Here’s a quick and dirty take on some of the new programs:
Smart Choices
Pros:

  • A big green can’t-miss-it check marks the packages of healthier foods.

Cons:

  • Debatable criteria
    Though a lot of experts weighed in on the program, several major food companies helped fund the program and companies pay to be involved. Low-calorie foods that are void of nutritional value (like Froot Loops) are receiving check marks, and consumers aren't fooled. The Smart Choices website defends the Froot Loops inclusion by claiming "pre-sweetened cereals have been demonstrated to be a good source of vitamins and minerals for children," but the program has drawn criticism from Forbes, The New York Times, and Nightline.
  • Too much emphasis on calories
    Calories and servings per package are the only numbers beneath the check. But as most of you dieters know, calories alone aren't everything. A serving of Mueslix has 90 more calories than a serving of Froot Loops, but a lot of people would argue that that doesn't necessarily mean the Froot Loops are healthier.
  • Not all products are included
    Because companies pay to get into the Smart Choices program, it doesn’t evaluate every single product in the store. For example, a serving of Bob's Red Mill Old Country Style Muesli gives you an equal amount of fiber as check-marked Kellogg's Mueslix, with no added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, but isn't in the Smart Choices program.
  • One check for all
    Kellogg's Mueslix
    has more fiber, protein, and B-vitamins than Froot Loops, but they have the same green check on the box. A product could barely meet the criteria or be a superfood and you'd never know the difference.

Guideline Daily Amounts
nutrition-labels
(Istockphoto)
Pros:

  • Big and bright
    Colorful front-of-packaging labels are designed to give you the scoop on key nutrients with a quick glance. Because the information is on the package, it goes home with you.
  • Coming across the pond
    Developed in the U.K., it seems on its way to becoming a standard in Europe (here's the British "What's Inside Guide" explaining GDAs), and GDA is already being used in the U.S. by Mars and also on some Kellogg's cereals along with the green Smart Choices check.

Cons:

  • Inconsistent
    Because it began in the U.K., it's not consistent to U.S. measurements and standards.
  • Geared toward adult diets
    Busy parents should note that the Guideline Daily Amounts are based on an adult diet—not a child’s.
  • No new tricks
    This label doesn’t tell you anything different than the Nutrition Facts panel; it actually tells you less. For me, it doesn’t seem to be that much extra effort to pick up the box and turn it to the side.

Guiding Stars
Pros:

  • Easy as 1, 2, 3
    Foods get either one, two, or three stars, depending on how healthy they are. It also takes into account things you want more of and things you want to avoid. Water, coffee, tea, spices, or alcohol aren't ranked, and if a food doesn’t meet nutritional standards, it doesn't get a star.
  • Right on the shelves
    Guiding Stars is a grocery-store initiative, so it isn’t based on whether food manufacturers pay to get in, and it’s not dependent upon food companies changing their packaging.

Cons:

  • Not much to it
    Looking for a specific ingredient? You have to read the label to get the details on nutrition and ingredients.
  • On your own at home
    Because the rating is on the grocery shelving and not the packaging, the stars don’t follow you home.
  • Limited stores
    Guiding Stars is exclusive to Hannaford Supermarkets, which isn’t nationwide.

Next page: NuVal
NuVal
Pros:

  • A simple scoring system
    Foods are ranked on a scale of 1 to 100, with higher numbers indicating healthier choices. The scoring system is an algorithm developed by Dr. David Katz that takes into account both the good and bad things in your food.
  • No strings attached
    Food manufacturers don’t pay to get into the program, nor do they have to change their packaging.
  • Busts false claims
    Products that you might think are healthy because of the brand, packaging claims, or the food itself may not rank so high once the nutritional numbers are crunched through the NuVal system.

Cons:

  • You're on your own once you leave the store
    Because the ratings are shown on store shelving, they don’t follow you home.
  • Just the beginning
    Not every food is rated (yet), and this program isn’t used in every store nationwide.
  • Picky dieters beware
    If you make a personal choice to, say, avoid products with artificial sweeteners, the NuVal score alone may not be as valuable to you. Breyers Black Cherry Jubilee Light Yogurt ranks a 99, but it also contains aspartame. Stonyfield Farms Organic Fat Free Black Cherry Yogurt doesn't have any artificial sweeteners, but it gets a 64.

Bottom line
Across the board, no matter the ratings system or the food, you’ll still have to dig past the labels to find what’s important to you. Maybe you don’t mind artificial sweeteners, but what if you’re allergic to dairy, or you can’t eat wheat products? What if organic and hormone-free foods are important to you? As a consumer, you still have to look at the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredients list.
If you’re dieting, chances are your diet program or plan has some grocery shopping tips. For example, Weight Watchers teaches members how to evaluate nutrition labels for key ingredients and encourages you to look for the most nutrition bang for your buck. At the most, you can hire a dietitian to take you on a grocery store tour.
If you're still confused, here are two blogs I like to read for perspective on nutrition news: Food Politics, by Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and What to Eat, and U.S. Food Policy by Parke Wilde, a professor (with whom I had the pleasure of studying) at Tufts University.Health World USP