Just the Facts Up Front, Ma’am

Understanding nutrition labels can be daunting. A new system aims to help

By + More

Let's face it: Reading food labels can be a daunting undertaking. Even after writing a 250-something page book about this task, I too get confused while walking down the aisles.

Bonnie Taub-Dix
Bonnie Taub-Dix
To help decipher what's on the box from what's in it, the Grocery Manufacturers of America collaborated with the Food Marketing Institute to launch a website that shines light on the new Facts Up Front icons. You'll now see this symbol at your local supermarket on nine out of 10 products in various categories, including cereals, dry goods and beverages. Calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar will appear on each label—and these big four, which may need to be limited, will often be accompanied by one or two other nutrients that perhaps need to be encouraged. For example: calcium, fiber, iron, potassium, protein and vitamins A, C and D. The product must contain at least 10 percent of these encouraged items, or they won't earn a position on the front panel.

[See When Nutrition Labels Lie.]

If I haven't lost you yet, here's the good part: GMA knew that just plastering another label on a package wasn't going to guide consumers into making better choices. "Facts Up Front is not just an icon," says registered dietitian Connie Diekman, a Facts Up Front advisory board member and director of university nutrition at Washington University in St Louis. "GMA is building a campaign to build awareness to consumers, health professionals and the media."

Another advisory board member, registered dietitian and nutritionist Robin Plotkin, described what is perhaps the coolest tool on the website: a nutrition calculator that helps visitors "relate products to their personal nutrient needs." By answering five simple questions, you can determine caloric needs for each of your family members. If shoppers know more about how many calories they actually need, they'll be better able to compare that often misunderstood number to what they put in their carts. As a culinary nutritionist, Plotkin was eager to point out the cache of recipes housed on the site as well as a wealth of shopping-related resources.

[See Debunking Common Nutrition Myths.]

It's note-worthy that Facts Up Front will not tell you what to do—labels aren't color-coded, with green standing for 'go for it' and red demanding you 'step away from the box.' Instead, the system emphasizes the facts that are already on the back of the product, which so many of us fail to read. Some fault these Facts for not providing more of a clue as to whether certain foods get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but food shopping isn't that simplistic, and other systems that have attempted such profiling also have strengths and shortcomings.

[See Vogue's 'Diet Mom:' How I Enforced My Kid's Diet .]

No matter which label you choose to look at, labels should clearly describe what's inside the box, but instead, they're often like billboards in Times Square. In some cases, it seems the outside of the box is more attractive than what's inside, and if you couple this with carpools, trying to fit in some exercise, stopping at the cleaners and then coming home and getting ready for work … there's not much time left to shop.

To me, the bottom line is that Facts Up Front is like a trailer to a movie. It attracts you, teaches you something and then entices you to want to know more. You'll have to flip that package over to get the rest of the details from the Nutrition Facts Panel, especially if certain numbers, like cholesterol, personally call out to you. "Facts Up Front doesn't replace the NFP," says Ginny Smith, senior director of communications at GMA, but perhaps they'll take you from the Dietary Guidelines to the checkout lines with more ease and less angst.

[See Video: Top Chefs Talk Healthy Eating.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.