Starting next summer, grocery shoppers may have a simple way to pick out the healthier foods on local supermarket shelves.
A group of food distributors and manufacturers, along with health and nutrition advocates this week announced a plan to introduce a universal nutritional ranking system that purports to identify the healthiest foods for consumers with a logo that appears on the front of food packaging.
The system, known as The Smart Choices Program, aims to be the first industry-wide front-of-packaging initiative to identify healthy food choices.
Proponents say it stands apart from existing nutrition labeling in that it directly identifies the most nutritious foods, making it easier for consumers to make healthy choices at a glance.
But the plan has sparked debate among health and nutrition experts over whether it is really the best approach to encourage consumers to make healthier choices.
With major food industry players involved -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg, ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, Unilever and Wal-Mart, to be specific -- it is likely that the new logos will be sprinkled amongst most, if not all, categories of food found in grocery store aisles.
"Having a common, industry-wide front-of-package nutrition symbol makes it much easier for consumers ... to build better diets," said Doug Balentine, nutrition sciences director for Unilever in the Americas, and one of the members of the panel that developed the system.
However, the fact that such a widespread group of food industry giants is behind the plan has some observers concerned.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, was originally part of the panel tasked with creating the new system, but he resigned earlier this month due to concerns with the approach.
"Just adopting the first system to come along could keep out better systems," he said. "If the first system is developed by the food industry, it makes you wonder."
Some have even labeled the proposed system as little more than a marketing ploy.
"The approach was developed and selected by food manufacturers who have an intrinsic bias: they want to sell food," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center at the Yale School of Medicine and developer of the ONQI nutritional guidance system. "They are motivated to put their products in the best light possible."
On the other side of the debate are those who feel that the front-of-packaging icon offers valuable information to consumers.
"This shows that at least some companies really are listening -- and responding -- to consumer needs," said Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the UPMC Weight Management Center in Pittsburgh, who calls the system "a big step in the right direction."
"The variety of 'health' labels on food products is complicated and hard to decipher," Fernstrom says. "This empowers the consumer to make a better choice."
The Smart Choices Program represents the fruits of an effort by the Keystone Center Food and Nutrition Roundtable. The Roundtable, established in 2007, consists of representatives from food producers and distributors, consumer and health advocates, nutrition and public health experts and observers from certain federal agencies.