Policy Update

Nutrition Keys – Adding Confusion to an Already Complicated Grocery Shopping Experience

by Sarah Gold

When was the last time you looked at a food label on a packaged product in the grocery store? If you’re like most Friedman students, it was probably the last time you went to the grocery store. As you shop, you might check for calorie and fat content or even the grams of sugar, fiber and sodium. Or maybe you would even go so far as to look at the ingredients list to know exactly what you’re eating. But if you ask the average American consumer about the last time they turned that food package around before putting it in their shopping cart, you’ll likely get a lot of blank stares in return. Unfortunately, for the majority of America, it’s what’s on the front of the package that matters.

Last week, America’s leading food and beverage companies announced the introduction of Nutrition Keys, the new front-of-pack labeling system. Nutrition Keys is intended to be a tool to help busy consumers make more informed decisions about the food they are purchasing. This is a voluntary program, not mandated by the FDA, and it comes in response to a request by Michelle Obama to include a front-of-pack labeling system that can be adopted by any food company. Nutrition Keys will include calories and up to three ingredients to limit such as sugar, sodium, or saturated fat.  In addition, they can include up to two “nutrients to encourage,” such as vitamins A, C, D, iron or calcium, as long as the food includes at least 10% of the recommended amount of that nutrient.

At first glance, this looks like a fantastic idea. Put the information where consumers can’t miss it and they’ll make better decisions, right? In an ideal world, that’s exactly what should happen, but it’s not that simple. Combining nutrients to limit and nutrients to encourage in the same message makes it confusing for consumers.  There are already misleading marketing claims on the packages of foods, and we don’t need people justifying the 11g of saturated fat in ice cream because it contains calcium and vitamin A!

This begs the question: do consumers actually know what these numbers mean? If a product is high in sodium but also has high fiber content, is that better than the product with low sodium, high sugar, and has and adequate vitamin C? What about a product that is low-calorie, low-fat, no-sugar but has no nutrients?  Even as a nutrition student I still sometimes stand in the grocery store aisles, staring at ingredient lists and nutrition facts trying to pick the best and most nutritious product. Without more explanation, how will the average shopper know if 300 calories per serving of ice cream is a little or a lot? Speaking of serving sizes, Nutrition Keys have completely ignored the serving size on the label. To keep with the ice cream example, one serving is a ½ cup. Do you know anyone who actually eats only ½ cup of ice cream? It’s very hard to do.

To add to the confusion, the FDA will not regulate Nutrition Keys. While the developers of Nutrition Keys have set some specific guidelines for what should be showcased, there will be no outside organization regulating how this is implemented. It’s important for the food companies to lead this effort, but there is potential for the implementation to become complicated and lack uniformity across brands.

With no explanation of how to interpret the nutrition information, putting the information on the front of the package just adds clutter to an already saturated space. So remember, as you start to see these labels in the grocery store, think carefully about what you’re purchasing. Just because ice cream contains calcium doesn’t mean it’s good for you!

Sarah Gold is a first year Nutrition Communication student and is also part of dual program with Simmons to pursue her Dietetic Internship. A born New Yorker, but Cali girl at heart, you can find Sarah on the ski slopes, on a bike, or in the kitchen testing out new recipes.


The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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