Should Junk Foods Wear a Mark of Shame?

In the war against obesity, is it bad foods that are the enemy, or just bad eating habits?

For one prominent medical expert, it's the food itself that's to blame for an epidemic of weight gain in the United States. And despite critics' claims to the contrary, he says we should arm consumers by literally labeling the enemy — junk food.

Snack foods like desserts, soft drinks, and salty snacks, all of which have been linked to poor eating habits and nutrient deficiencies, make up nearly one third of the average American diet.

"It's time for junk food to wear a name tag," argues Dr. David Katz, founder and director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn., and author of The Way to Eat.

A "scarlet J" to mark junk food packages, he suggests, would put the blame where he says it belongs — on "bad foods" rather than on the people who eat them.

Katz maintains labels currently provided by the food manufacturers that advertise "no cholesterol" or "low in transfats" fail to inform consumers about the food's overall nutritional quality. A kid's cereal, for example, is often full of refined sugars and empty calories, but a parent may purchase it because of a label saying it is fortified with vitamins and minerals.

His proposal aims to encompass many nutrition indicators into one government-sanctioned label on the front of the package — the "prime real estate" of the product. A panel of nutrition experts would assign ratings to foods based on a "Nutrient Quality Index" that includes calories, bad and overconsumed nutrients, and good and under-consumed nutrients.

Such a system is already in place in Sweden, where low-fat and fiber rich foods are marked with a green keyhole symbol using food-specific criteria.

Critics of the labeling plan raise concerns, however, about the feasibility and effectiveness of assigning food labels, as well as the social and legal implications of the proposal.

Good Foods Versus Bad Foods

In 1970s, for instance, there were efforts to create objective criteria for nutritional value using nutrient density. That project ultimately failed.

"The [nutrient density] terminology didn't get anywhere so we settled for nutritional labeling on the package," explains Helen Ullrich, Berkeley, Calif.-based co-founder and former executive director of the Society for Nutrition Education, now retired. "The density label had too many ramifications to put on the foods. It began to say, these are good foods and these are bad foods, and people didn't want to say that."

Other experts question whether any food deserves to wear a scarlet J. The American Dietetic Association and many in the food industry, for instance, contend there is no such thing as good and bad foods. Instead, they say we should focus on good and bad diets.

"It's the overall nutrition package that provides the health benefit, not each food in isolation," maintains Robert Eckel, a professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

But, claims Katz, "If we can rate the quality of the overall diet, we must be able to rate the quality of the building blocks."

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