"From a public health perspective, it is folly to not believe that some foods are better than others," agrees Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, in his book Food Fight. "Before progress can be made on changing the American diet, there must be collective agreement that the population should be eating more of some foods and less of others."
Still, some nutrition experts worry the classification is overly simplistic.
Connie Diekman, director of nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, points out that "nutritional needs vary" from person to person. "Some foods are high in nutrients and calories but they add significantly to healthy eating — meat, cheese or olive oil for example," she says.
Jackie Newgent, a New York-based culinary and nutrition communications consultant, suggests it's difficult to know where to draw the line with categories. "There are far too many variables," she says. "For instance, where would something like dark chocolate fit? It's packed with antioxidants, yet not ones that'll show up on a nutrition facts food label."
Will Labels Make a Difference?
Even if a classification system were agreed upon, many question the added value of yet another nutritional label. Newgent explains: "People generally already know what's more healthful and less healthful and … consumers still choose to purchase items based mainly on taste … People know that 10 grapes are a better choice than 10 cookies."
And Lisa Katic, a nutrition consultant for the Grocery Manufacturer's of America and the Snack Foods Association in Washington, D.C., says consumers may actually be confused by another layer to existing food labels.
Many in the food industry are reluctant to use additional labels, and experts wonder if companies might manipulate the protocol by fortifying otherwise unhealthy foods with vitamins and minerals.
"Might Hostess, for example, fortify Twinkies with added vitamins and narrowly avoid the Scarlet J?" asks Arthur Greenwald, Studio City, Calif.-based media consultant who works with bariatric surgeons. "Would higher-end treats such as Godiva Chocolates or imported fois gras lobby for a special gourmet-quality exemption?"
Still, Jacobson believes the primary benefit of an added label is that it is "symbolic, rather than detailed numbers. … A lot of people don't use [the nutrition facts labels], partly because [they are] complicated. They have been useful, but haven't had as great an impact as many of us wished."
Big Brother in the Kitchen?
A number of critics argue the labeling system underestimates the ability of Americans to make their own dietary choices.
"This is pushing the envelope, acting like people don't know which foods should be consumed in moderation," says Katic. "The industry is very committed to give consumers more choices. [We] think the key is education and helping people meet a balanced diet."
David Lineback, director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the University of Maryland in College Park, argues "the proposal being made is a disservice to and an excuse from taking personal responsibility for one's eating habits."
Adds Newgent, "I want my handful of potato chips every now and then. I can't imagine feeling like my hand is being slapped every time I want a few."
While Katz acknowledges the potential downsides of labeling, he says he's"not trying to be anybody's nanny. … Giving people nutrition info they can use is empowering, then they can take personal responsibility."