By ERIN ALLDAY
San Francisco Chronicle
January 02, 2008
The federally mandated labels, chock-full of useful information, are notoriously difficult to understand. Even professional nutritionists admit to having a hard time using the information to make smart food purchases. And even when shoppers do understand the labels, who has time to compare five or six or more loaves of bread -- all before moving to the cereal aisle?
A group of researchers may have a solution. Sometime this year, the scientists will introduce a new labeling system that they say will help consumers easily identify the healthiest foods in a grocery store -- every product will be rated on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 going to the most nutritious products.
The labels -- called the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, or ONQI, score -- will begin to show up on about 40,000 products over the summer.
"I've been counseling patients for 20 years, and I've seen the problems they face with real-life nutrition decisions. You need a Ph.D. in chemistry to find something healthy at the grocery store," said David Katz, director of the Yale Griffin Prevention Research Center and developer of the rating system.
Katz was part of a group of nutrition experts who met in 2003 under the direction of the U.S. secretary of health and human services to discuss ways to help consumers make better food choices. The panel never reached any formal conclusions, but Katz was inspired and left to form his own research group. With money from Yale's Griffin Hospital, he developed a new labeling system.
In February, Topco Associates, a grocery distribution cooperative owned by independent grocers, joined Katz and offered to introduce the ONQI labels in stores belonging to its members. Topco grocers own about 13,000 stores nationwide, including the Raley's chain, which is part of the first rollout.
Katz's group isn't the only one developing a new labeling system, although it will be the first to launch one nationwide. Maine-based Hannaford Supermarkets, a chain of grocery stores, will begin licensing its labeling system, called Guiding Stars, to other chains sometime next year. The Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition, a group made up of food producers and manufacturers, is also developing labeling guidelines.
At the same time, diet and nutrition experts are pressuring the federal government to create a single labeling system that would be used on every product at every store.
Some nutritionists worry that multiple labeling systems will just befuddle consumers even more than they already are.
"It's just going to be more confusing for the general public," said Jane Tien, a registered dietitian with California Pacific Medical Center. "I'm not saying that in the long run we shouldn't have one system. But I think the federal government needs to step up."
Tien also noted that it's nearly impossible to develop a simple labeling system that would apply to every consumer. A person with heart disease would have very different nutritional needs than a family with small children or an older person with kidney problems.
The concerns are not lost on Katz, who acknowledges that there are limitations to the ONQI system. Over time, he said, he'd like to create labels specifically for people with certain health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes.
The goal of the ONQI system is to distill the nutrition information already available to consumers into a score that is simple and easy for shoppers to understand.
As it stands, shoppers are swamped with packaging and advertisements that scream "low-fat," "fortified," "sugar-free" and dozens of other healthy promises. There are times when regular mayonnaise may actually be healthier than the low-calorie option, or the full-fat organic peanut butter is a better choice than the "light" name-brand product, Katz said, but figuring that out takes knowledge and time.
The foods most in need of simple labeling, nutritionists say, are the "middle aisle" products -- snacks, treats, and popular items like cereal and bread that supermarkets display in the busiest sections of stores.
"If you're buying breakfast cereal you think is healthy for your kids, you have a right to know the truth," Katz said. "Even if you aren't eating healthy, you can choose to eat all the cheese doodles you want, but you deserve to know what it is nutritionally."
Katz and his colleagues have assigned raw scores to about 20,000 foods. Those scores must now be assigned ratings, on the 1-100 scale, that will be useful to consumers.
The ONQI rating system involves a complex algorithm that analyzes the nutritional makeup of a food item and then assigns a score that essentially divides the healthy elements -- vitamins and minerals, for example -- by the unhealthy ones, like fats and sugars.
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