Eat Beat

New Labels Pinpoint Healthy Food Facts

by Althea Zanecosky

Many parents carefully consider the nutritional merits of foods. But eating smart can get complicated. There are calories to count, types of fat to choose, plus sugar, fiber, salt and essential nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals.

Grocery stores and nutrition scientists are stepping up to the plate to help make choosing easier and, hopefully, healthier. The new kids on the supermarket block are food rating systems based on a concept called nutrient profiling.

The pioneers. The New England supermarket group Hannaford Brothers was the first in the U.S. to develop and implement a nutrition profiling system called The Guiding Stars. Food Lion stores later joined the program.

Developed by a panel of health and research professionals, this rating system is based on the standard Nutrition Facts label and the ingredients list for a product.

Foods gain points for fiber, whole grains, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium and lose points for excessive sodium, cholesterol, added sugar and total saturated and trans fat content.

Seeing spots. Safeway, which also owns Genuardi’s, has partnered with Warner Brothers Entertainment to launch a new line of Looney Tunes-festooned food and drink items for children as part of the supermarket chain’s Eating Right line of health-conscious foods.

Called Eating Right Kids, this line-up of more than 100 breakfast foods, portable meals, dairy, snacks and beverages will be promoted as helping moms pick more nutritious food for their children. The packages carry nutrition information such as fiber, calorie and fat content within colored spots. Large circles offer a specific dietary benefit, while smaller circles highlight a nutrition

Helpful dots. Another set of dots have appeared on Wegmans store-brand products. Wellness Keys began eight years ago with symbols for Gluten Free (G), Lactose Free (L) and Vegan (V) for recipes in Wegmans Menu Magazine and on the supermarket chain’s website.

Wegmans has since added symbols for High Fiber (HF), High Calcium (HC), Low Fat (LF), Fat Free (FF), Lean (L), Low Calorie (LC), Sugar Free (SF), Low Sodium (LS), Heart Healthy (a heart), Whole Grain and Fruit or Vegetable. Hundreds of Wegmans-brand products have the symbols on their packages.

Outside the store. The Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition (NRF), sponsored by 12 commodity food groups, scores food not just on nutrients, but also by serving size and cost. The goal is to steer us toward foods that pack the greatest nutritive punch for the number of calories they contain and, importantly, how much they cost. The Nutrient Rich Foods website offers fast and reliable information to help you choose foods with the most vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, but not too many calories. Info is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPyramid.

Coming next summer. A group of food makers and sellers, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg, ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, Unilever and Wal-Mart, plan to introduce The Smart Choices Program to grocery shelves in summer 2009. Foods labeled Smart Choices will have relatively low total fat, trans fat, sodium and cholesterol and relatively high levels of fiber, vitamins and minerals. However, the program has already drawn fire for allowing high sugar content (up to 40 percent in some cereals) and possibly being too expensive for small companies to participate.

Althea Zanecosky is a Philadelphia registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.