Attention shoppers: Star-struck food labels and a worse EWG food ranking list

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Shoppers might soon be seeing stars in the grocery aisles, if recent recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) on food labeling are accepted by the FDA. The IOM s report, requested by Congress, recommends that the FDA develop a single system of standardized symbols one that should reflect food s healthfulness to appear on the front of all food and beverage products. The hope is that the number of stars on a package would more swiftly guide consumers toward healthful choices.

According to the IOM s report, the stars would function as a shorthand for the amount of saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars in a serving of a given product: A product that scores well in all three categories would rate three stars, the highest score, while a product that scored poorly would have no star at all. In addition to the star rating, the front-of-package label would also include the number of calories in a serving. As well as making it easier for consumers to make healthful choices, says the IOM, the system would encourage food and beverage producers to develop healthier fare.

ACSH s Senior Fellow in Nutrition Dr. Ruth Kava is in favor of ways to more effectively educate a population that faces increasing rates of obesity-related diseases. However, I am concerned that the IOM s star-rating system might over-simplify the complexity of what constitutes a healthful diet, she says. A clearer nutritional labeling system has the potential to help at least a portion of consumers who need better guidance especially those who don t use or understand the more detailed information on the Nutrition Facts label. Given that, Dr. Kava says she s withholding judgment for now.

And, although the IOM describes the star system as a way to encourage manufacturers to develop healthier products, ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan points out that such a simplified rating system might reduce foods to simply good and bad. It s a perception, she says, that may lead consumers to focus on specific three-starred products while ignoring overall balance in their diets.

Still, we prefer the IOM's idea to the one just announced bythe alarmist Environmental Working Group (EWG). Moving down the food chain way down we find the EWG at work on a food-safety database that may well further confuse the average shopper.

While the IOM system has at least the potential for supplying some valid information, EWG s home-made rating system takes into account pesticide residue, industrial contaminants, food dyes and environmental pollutants for more than 10,000 supermarket items. Consumers who pay attention to this compendium will be sent into an unnecessary tizzy if the rating system is as scientifically flawed as EWG s notorious Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables supposedly contaminated by pesticides.

The EWG used its own flawed methodology for the Dirty Dozen; however, the organization claims that they will base their new rating system on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If this is indeed the case, such standards would conflict with the group s earlier claims that the testing done by those agencies is not stringent enough. I m sure they ll find a way to spin the data, ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross observes. But since no one peer-reviews EWG s work, they can get away with saying anything they like and the media laps it up.

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom agrees. I would be hard pressed to come up with a better way to waste time, he says. This will do nothing to help people choose foods wisely; it s more likely to manipulate and scare them, which is EWG s stock in trade.