11/03/2010 07:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Next Big Thing for Food Labels

Wouldn't it be great to walk through the supermarket and be able to identify the healthiest products at a glance? Without even turning the package over and looking at Nutrition Facts panels?

Well, of course the healthiest foods in the supermarkets often don't come in packages at all: fresh fruits and vegetables. But for everything else, we rely on labels. And while Nutrition Facts labels are great and give consumers a great deal of useful information to guide their choices, they aren't as visible as the companies' marketing claims on the fronts of packages. Zooming through the supermarket, we can easily see that a box of cereal offers "IMMUNITY" to some unspecified disease ... but we have to pick up the box and flip it around only to find that the cereal is high in sugar, low in fiber and so on.

Front-of-package nutrition labeling is one of the hottest topics in food marketing today. Some companies, such as General Mills and PepsiCo, had used their own versions, with names like the "Goodness Corner," and "Smart Spot," respectively. One supermarket chain, Hannaford, has designed a system that assigns stars to foods based on sensible nutrition criteria. And other chains are using the NuVal system, which ranks every food on a nutrition scale of 1 to 100. But the goal should be to come up with one uniform set of symbols that would be used on all foods and would make the healthiest foods easy to spot, and the least healthy products easy to avoid.

The food industry tried coming up with an industry-wide system like this once before. That program was called Smart Choices and was based on many sensible criteria. But it allowed excessive amounts of sugar in cereals, did not require bread and other grain foods to contain any whole grains at all, and allowed added nutrients to cover up a food's poor nutritional quality. One wag (me) said that even vitamin-fortified sawdust would qualify for the special logo. But it didn't take a wag to question the appropriateness of the Smart Choices seal of approval on Froot Loops and other nutritionally questionable products. (Full disclosure: I resigned from an advisory committee that planned Smart Choices when it became clear that the program's nutrition criteria would not be smart enough.)

Just last week, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute (the supermarket industry) announced that they would try again to design a front-of-package labeling system. Clearly the food industry wants to come up with its own system before the Food and Drug Administration comes up with one for them (that's what we've been urging the FDA to do since 2006).

The Institute of Medicine recently recommended that a credible front-of-package labeling system should focus on calories and three nutrients: saturated fat, trans fat and sodium. (I would drop trans fat, because fewer products still contain it, and add refined sugars, because some foods and beverages contain so much of it.) But instead of repeating the raw numbers on the Nutrition Facts panel, a useful system should provide a visual cue as to whether those nutrients are present in low, medium, or high amounts. One possibility would be to use green, yellow, or red traffic light symbols, as the British government has urged companies there to use (few do). You can be sure that the food industry is doing everything it can to avoid having to acknowledge that a given food is "high" in any of those unsavory nutrients.

Whether the government can (or even wants to) overcome that resistance will determine whether the next front-of-package labeling system will serve consumers or food marketers.