updated 9/10/2007 4:59:01 PM ET 2007-09-10T20:59:01

Federal health officials on Monday considered whether adding symbols with nutrition information to food labels, like a traffic light system used in Britain, might help shoppers make healthier food choices.

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The Food and Drug Administration opened a two-day meeting to collect comments from food companies, trade groups, watchdog organizations, medical experts and its overseas counterparts on the topic. Any action is likely years away.

Some food manufacturers and retailers already have begun labeling foods with symbols to indicate how nutritious they are. PepsiCo uses the “Smart Spot” symbol on diet Pepsi, baked Lay’s chips and other products. Hannaford Bros., a New England supermarket chain, uses a zero to three-star system to rate more than 25,000 food items it sells. And in Britain, the government has persuaded some food companies to use a “traffic light” symbol. That ranking system relies on green, yellow and red lights to characterize whether a food is low, medium or high in fat, salt and sugar.

“A whole range of consumers like it and can use it. And the important thing is that we know that it is actually changing what is happening in the marketplace,” said Claire Boville, of Britain’s Food Standards Agency, citing increased sales of foods flagged with the green and yellow symbols.

More consistency needed
Worldwide, there is little consistency among the competing symbol regimes in use, according to the FDA, as it works to glean more information about them.

Nutrition labels used in Great Britain

“We really don’t have adequate information about the various programs to understand how their criteria work and how they are used and understood by consumers ... and how they may effect market choice,” said Michael Landa, deputy director of the FDA’s food office.

While Landa said the agency is in information-gathering mode, one lawmaker said he would move forward with legislation compelling the FDA to establish a single set of nutrition symbols.

“The proliferation of different nutrition symbols on food packaging, well-intended as it may be, is likely to further confuse, rather than assist, American consumers who are trying to make good nutrition choices for themselves and their families. FDA should take meaningful steps to establish some consistency to these many different systems of nutrition symbols,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, said in a statement.

A petition filed in November by the Center for Science in the Public Interest also asked the FDA to create a national front-label symbol system. Such a system should complement but not replace the sometimes dizzying information packed into the nutritional facts labels most foods now bear, said Michael Jacobson, the advocacy group’s executive director.

“You could send a child to the store with 20 bucks and say, ‘Johnny, you can buy whatever you want as long as it has a green dot — and you can get one red-dot food,”’ Jacobson said.

Absent congressional action, Jacobson said it could take a decade for the FDA to set up such a system.

National Dairy Council nutrition expert Ann Marie Krautheim said setting up a consistent system would be helpful, if grounded in science and tested with consumers to ensure it worked. Krautheim said the Council’s own research showed taste still trumped all for consumers when choosing what to eat, with convenience, cost and nutrition all vying for second place.

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