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An easy-to-read label is hard to find

A nutrition label on a cereal box.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Officials at the Food and Drug Administration spent their day with the ever-expanding American waistline. The FDA's looking at food labels, debating how those labels might help consumers make healthy choices. From the Marketplace health desk at WGBH, Helen Palmer reports there are plenty of ideas but not much consensus.


Helen Palmer: The idea is to get easily recognizable, simple symbols on food to help consumers make healthy choices. There are already a bunch out there, says the FDA's Barbara Schneeman.

Barbara Schneeman: Manufacturers have developed symbols. There's some consumer groups that have developed symbols. We know that there are health organizations, like American Heart, that have also developed symbols.

The heart symbol's familiar on food packaging and menus. One supermarket chain devised a star system -- 25,000 food items rate between zero and three stars. Schneeman says these symbols are based on different nutritional criteria, like amount of fat or fiber.

Schneeman: We're also asking, Are there situations where it could confuse consumers or lead them to make a less-than-healthful food choice.

That's a problem nutritionists see with current food labeling. Tufts University's Alice Lichtenstein:

Alice Lichtenstein: And the amount of information at the moment is quite overwhelming. And for certain foods some of it is not necessarily helpful.

Lichtenstein says a simpler system would make nutrition information more accessible. Like the U.K.'s food traffic-light system. Foods with a green sticker -- go ahead; amber -- caution; red -- stop.

U.S. food companies don't want those kinds of symbols imposed. And mandatory label changes are expensive, says Robert Earl of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Robert Earl: In short, it costs real money. And those costs are sometimes absorbed, and sometimes are included in food costs.

Earl says food manufacturers compete to deliver healthier products. Current labels are based on the science of the government's food pyramid, and the system works well.

In Boston, I'm Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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