A New York Times article written on the subject recently stated that, "In a report...the IOM called for a simplified label that would go on the front of food packages that would show the number of calories per serving and contain zero to three stars or checkmarks to indicate how healthful a food was." But the question is, who is defining 'healthful' here??
Foods will be rated on 3 anti-nutrients: Sugar, Sodium, and Saturated and Trans-fats. The sugar part, I agree whole-heartedly. As I've written about in the past, refined sugar (along with refined flour, especially), is the number one contributor to cardiovascular disease, obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and all types disease and systemic inflammation in the body. As far as sodium goes, if you are eating a diet high in processed/packaged foods, you are most likely getting too much sodium. However, if you eat a whole foods diet, adding some sea salt to your diet (especially Celtic or Himalayan) will ensure (among other things) that we maintain a healthy potassium/sodium balance.
Lastly, the Saturated and trans-fats category is the one I have the most trouble with. First of all, the fact that these two are even in the same category is troublesome. Without a doubt, trans fats reek havoc on our bodies, as they are man made compounds produced because they have a longer shelf life (aka, cheaper) yet our body has no way of processing them. Alongside the above-mentioned refined carbs and sugars, trans fats are right up there on the list of causing disease. However, good quality saturated fats are healthful and necessary for brain and cell function, and can actually work to balance our cholesterol levels and reduce our risk of heart disease.
So, the proposed labeling plan may not be all bad, but it is too simplistic. Lets look at a food they would give a 3-star rating (the most healthful):
Wheat Bread: yikes. Its true that grains have been the base of the USDA food pyramid for years, and this is largely due to catering to wheat manufacturers (one of the biggest cash crops in the US). If you've read my past articles, you now know that processed grains contain compounds that interfere with critical mineral absorption (such as zinc which is vital to immune health, and magnesium that is essential for heart health and relaxation). Common whole wheat bread is really not much different than white bread. Wheat bread generally contains processed wheat, the germ and the brain have been removed for shelf-life, leaving only the starchy endosperm. If you are going to eat bread, opt for whole grain, sprouted varieties. The Ezekiel brand has some good options (but remember the last article about grains!).
Raisin Bran: This gets 2 stars (next best). Ingredient list:
WHOLE GRAIN WHEAT, RAISINS, WHEAT BRAN, SUGAR, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, CONTAINS TWO PERCENT OR LESS OF SALT, MALT FLAVORING, INVERT SUGAR, NIACINAMIDE, REDUCED IRON, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B6), ZINC OXIDE, RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2), THIAMIN HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B1), VITAMIN A PALMITATE, FOLIC ACID, VITAMIN D, VITAMIN B12.
Need I say more?? 3rd and 4th ingredients are sugar and high fructose corn syrup. And this food gets 2 stars by this labeling system...can you imagine what gets 1?
In short, yes, there are many changes that need to be made to our current nutrition labeling system. More than anything, more education needs to exist around how to really read food labels. General rule of thumb: if you can't pronounce it and/or couldn't make it in your own kitchen, probably not the best choice. Stick to the perimeter of the store as far from the processed and packaged foods as possible, and you won't have to worry about decoding silly rating systems in the first place.
Further Reading and Resources:
NY Times Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/business/a-plan-to-rate-nutrition-of-food-with-stars.html?scp=1&sq=food%20labels&st=cse#
IOM website: http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2011/Front-of-Package-Nutrition-Rating-Systems-and-Symbols-Promoting-Healthier-Choices.aspx