"A lot of folks are overwhelmed," said Susan Moores, a nutritionist and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "They look at the front of the label and there's some good info on there, but they learn through media that there's more to it than the front, and it gets confusing."
According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, there are too many labeling systems to count. Individual marketers or grocers use at least eight systems, while other food packagers have co-opted parts of government guidelines: MyPyramid, the former "Five a Day" vegetable program, or the "Three a Day" dairy program, for example.
There's sound reasoning for this: Products flagged "healthful" are healthy sellers. Kraft Foods has found that better-for-you products, including those bearing its "Sensible Solutions" or South Beach Living logos, are growing two to three times faster than their counterparts. PepsiCo's "Smart Spot," which directs customers to "more-healthful" choices such as Sun Chips, has resulted in those businesses outgrowing the rest of its portfolio. Aware of this, Kellogg, ConAgra and General Mills have decked their products with visual representations of how they contribute to government guidelines for daily amounts of calories, fat and certain nutrients.
Adding to the din are grocery chains eager to assist customers with myriad choices -- and make sure house brands don't get passed by. Hannaford Supermarkets introduced its "guiding stars" program in 2006, which evaluates the nutritional components of nearly everything in the store. Products with stars have outsold their starless counterparts by one-and-a-half to five times, depending on the category, the company said. The test has been so successful that Hannaford's parent, Delhaize Group, is rolling out the guiding stars program to its other grocery chains, Food Lion and Bloom.
Safeway, which also owns Dominick's and Pavilions, recently introduced a FoodFlex program available to consumers with a loyalty card. After one signs up for the free service online, the system rates the health of a consumer's purchases over a six-month period.
Not all in favor
While some marketers favor a universal system, there may be some holdouts. On a calorie and fat basis, cereals tend to hold up better on the healthful score than meat and dairy, for example, which are nonetheless essential in most diets.
"Since it's a cluttered field, you need to have science to support your approach," said Cathy Kapica, VP-global health and wellness at Ketchum. "That, I think, is the key differentiating factor." She previously was global nutrition director at McDonald's.
ConAgra is attempting to circumvent the problem with a front-of-box food pyramid. "One of the things we heard from consumers -- and we heard it across the board -- is: 'I know what an apple is, a piece of chicken is, but what about a prepared meal? How does that contribute to my overall daily goal for meat, protein and vegetables?'" said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman. "We wanted to ... do the math for the consumer on where our product fits into those dietary recommendations," she said.