"The supermarket is teeming with competing 'healthy food' symbols that run the gamut from highly helpful to fatally flawed," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "But a prominent and reliable symbol on the fronts of packages would be a tremendous help to those harried shoppers racing through the supermarket. Not everyone has the time or knowledge to scrutinize the Nutrition Facts labels or to decode the symbols Kraft, PepsiCo, General Mills, or other companies happen to be using."
The 31-page petition states that a universal set of easy-to-use nutrition symbols will complement the current nutrition facts label, and is supported by 14 researchers and physicians including Drs. Alberto Ascherio, Eric Rimm, Meir Stampfer, and Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, and Drs. George Blackburn, Carlos Camargo and JoAnn Manson of Harvard Medical School.
The petition points out that the agency could use the U.K. and Sweden as models since they already have similar systems in place. Under the U.K. system, foods get green, yellow and red dots on the label to denote whether they respectively contain low, medium or high levels of things like fat, sugar and salt. The Swedish system uses a green keyhole-shaped symbol to indicate the healthiest foods within a given food category. The CSPI also suggests the agency solicit comments from the American public to decide what route to take.
The health advocacy group admitted that the petition was only the first step of the long process needed to create such a system, but hoped that pointing out the flaws in the currently used systems would expedite the FDA's reaction.
"The FDA should tear down this Tower of Babel propped up by food companies, and give consumers the reliable information they need at a glance," said Bruce Silverglade, CSPI legal affairs director and a force behind the 1990 law that resulted in the Nutrition Facts label.
General Mill's Chocolate Lucky Charms, for example, has the American Heart Association's heart-check mark despite its 50-percent-by-weight sugar content -- General Mills also has more than 26 different healthy symbols that it puts on foods with high fat, salt and sugar contents -- and the Frito-Lay Munchies Kid Mix displays PepsiCo's "Smart Spot" health symbol even though it contains Cap'n Crunch cereal, mini pretzels, Cheetos, popcorn and candy-coated chocolates.
"The current health advice symbols developed by junk food manufacturers like PepsiCo are a nutritional joke," said Mike Adams, author of "Grocery Warning."
"Establishing a uniform system of nutrition symbols can help consumers make sense of the mountains of diverse and often conflicting information and advice," said Senator Tom Harkin, (D-IA), incoming chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "Only with reliable, consistent, and easy-to-understand information can consumers take charge of their own health. Common-sense food labeling is good for Americans' health. I'm hopeful that the FDA will respond positively to CSPI's petition. If not, I may well seek legislative action to address this concern."
Adams agreed that a simple, universal system of symbols that instantly tell shoppers whether foods are unhealthy, neutral or healthy was essential, but added, "Unfortunately, should any such system be created by a department in the federal government, it will undoubtedly be corrupted by industry. The FDA, in particular, has already proven it will favor the interests of private industry over public health, so to expect the agency to create an honest food labeling system is only wishful thinking."
The system that the CSPI currently identifies as one of the best is the one developed by Hannaford supermarket chain. The system assigns zero, one, two or three stars next to the price of both its own store-brand products and products from other companies. Chocolate Lucky Charms receive zero Hannaford stars.