Nutrition in the News

Food rating systems: A not-so-smart choice

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When rushing through the supermarket, who has time to pore over Nutrition Facts labels and compare ingredient lists?

That’s why more than a dozen rating systems have been established to help shoppers identify healthful products. (1) Some, like the Guiding Stars program in Hannaford supermarkets, put rating information on food shelf tags below various products. (2) Others, like the controversial (and now on-hold) Smart Choices Program, put jazzy labels on the front of packages. (3) The problem with these programs is that they use varied, and sometimes dubious, rating systems.

Take Smart Choices as an example. Started by the country’s top food companies (ConAgra, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, Pepsico, Unilever, and others), the program gave its seal of approval to foods that meet certain standards. Products could not exceed defined thresholds for fats (saturated, trans, total), sodium, cholesterol and added sugars, and were required to include calcium, fiber, or certain vitamins. (4) Under these guidelines, Apple Jacks, Cocoa Krispies, Cocoa Puffs, Corn Pops, Froot Loops, and Keebler Cookie Crunch—which all have 12 grams of sugar—got the same Smart Choices check mark as Cheerios (which has 1 gram of sugar).

“In principle, the Smart Choices seal could have been very useful for identifying foods that meet a high nutritional standard,” says Dr. Walter C. Willett, chair of the Harvard School of Public Heath Department of Nutrition. “However, the program’s standard was so low that even horrendous junk foods could qualify.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put the Smart Choices program on notice in August 2009 with a letter that it would be concerned if any front-of-package labeling system “used criteria that were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims; were inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.” (5)

In late October 2009, the FDA announced it was establishing an independent panel to propose standards that companies must follow if they want to put nutrition guides or labels on the front of packages. (6) Soon after that, Smart Choices announced that it would “voluntarily postpone active operations and not encourage wider use of the logo,” (7) and news reports say that the program’s key founding companies have agreed to phase out the logo from their products. (810)

Until the FDA’s proposed standards come along, it’s a good idea to make your own smart choices by reading Nutrition Facts labels and ingredient lists instead of relying on those that may be as interested in a company’s health as yours.

References

1. Nutrition rating systems: a comparison. Fooducate Blog. Last updated September 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

2. Hannaford Bros. What is Guiding Stars? Hannaford.com. Accessed November 2, 2009.

3. Smart Choices Program. Guiding food choices. SmartChoicesProgram.com. Accessed November 2, 2009.

4. Smart Choices Program. Which foods get into the Smart Choices Program? SmartChoicesProgram.com. Accessed November 2, 2009.

5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Letter to the Smart Choices program. FDA.gov. Last updated August 19, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

6. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Background information on point of purchase labeling. FDA.gov. Last updated October 21, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

7. Smart Choices Program. Press release: Smart Choices Program postpones active operations. SmartChoicesProgram.com. Last updated October 23, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

8. Neumann W. Food label program to suspend operations. The New York Times: October 24, 2009, B1

9. Kraft Foods chooses to phase out ‘Smart Choices’ label. ChicagoTribune.com. Last updated October 29, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

10. Eight food manufacturers agree to drop Smart Choices logo. LegalNewsLine.com. Last updated October 29, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

Taxing soda to slow the obesity epidemic

Adding a penny per ounce tax to sugar-sweetened beverages could slow the growth of obesity in the U.S.—and could raise billions of dollars for obesity prevention and soda-cans-mediumother health programs, according to a new analysis by seven public health experts in The New England Journal of Medicine.(1)

Overweight-and obesity-related medical costs in the U.S. total an estimated $147 billion a year—nearly 10 percent of all health care spending—and sugary drinks are a major contributor to the nation’s obesity epidemic. (2-4)

A penny-per-ounce excise tax would likely spur consumers to cut their sugary drink calorie consumption, potentially by 8 to 10 percent—enough to promote weight loss and lower the risk of sugary drink-related chronic diseases—and could raise nearly $15 billion per year, the authors write. Levying an excise tax directly on beverage manufacturers—rather than a sales tax on consumers—would likely be the most efficient way to collect the tax and lead to the greatest effect on consumption because consumers would see this as a higher price. A tax on the sugar content of beverages would also give manufacturers an incentive to cut down the sugar content of drinks.

How much money could a tax on sugary drinks raise in your state? Try the soda tax revenue calculator at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity website.

Find out how much sugar is in soft drinks, iced tea, sports drink, juices, and other beverages.

References

1. Brownell KD, Farley T,Willett WC, Popkin BM, Chaloupka FJ, Thompson JW, Ludwig DS. The public healthand economic benefits of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2009.

2. Finkelstein EA, Trogdon JG, Cohen JW, Dietz W. Annual medical spending attributable to obesity: payer- and service-specific estimates. Health Affairs (Millwood). 2009; July 29 (Epub ahead of print).

3. Malik VS, Schulze MB, Hu FB. Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: asystematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006; 84:274-288.

4. Vartanian LR, Schwartz MB, Brownell KD. Effects of soft drink consumption on nutrition and health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Public Health. 2007; 97:667-675.

The Fertility Diet: Groundbreaking Research Reveals Natural Ways to Boost Ovulation and Improve Your Chances of Getting Pregnant

fertility-diet-book-coverThe Fertility Diet: Groundbreaking Research Reveals Natural Ways to Boost Ovulation and Improve Your Chances of Getting Pregnant (McGraw-Hill), by Jorge Chavarro, M.D., Sc.D., Walter Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., and Patrick J. Skerrett offers couples a diet and lifestyle plan that can help improve fertility, naturally—and is good for overall health, during pregnancy and beyond.

Faculty in the Media 2009

The Good-for-You Gimlet? — coverage from Newsweek.com, December 30, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Eric Rimm

Fishing for Facts — coverage from The Boston Globe, December 14, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Eric Rimm

Soy Foods Could Help Breast Cancer Survivors — coverage from USA Today, December 10, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Knowing What’s Worth Paying For in Vitamins — coverage from The New York Times, December 4, 2009, featuring HSPH’s Eric Rimm

The Flu Figthers in Your Food — coverage from The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Anuraj Shankar

Coca-Cola Deal with Family Doctors Draws Fire — and a Harvard Counteroffer — coverage from Boston.com, November 13, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Teenage Obesity May Raise Risk of MS — coverage from WebMD, November 9, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Kassandra Munger

Coconut Water Takes on the World — coverage from The Financial Times, November 4, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Lilian Cheung

Can Americans Change Their Taste for the Sweet and Salty? — coverage from U.S. News and World Report.com, October 30, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Lilian Cheung.

Obesity: A Weighty Issue — coverage from CBSNews.com, October 25, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Scientists Seek Origins of Obesity in the Womb — coveragae from the Associated Press, October 23, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Matthew Gillman

Good for the Oceans, Good for You — coverage from The Washington Post, October 20, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Dariush Mozaffarian

Urate Linked to Slowed Parkinson’s Disease — coverage from UPI, October 15, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Alberto Ascherio

Middle-Age Obesity Warning  — video from BBC News, September 30, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Qi Sun

Mid-Life Obesity Predicts Women’s Later Health Woes  — coverage from The Washington Post, September 30, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Qi Sun

Midlife Fat Could Mean Disease in Later Years  — coverage from ABCnews.com, September 30, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Qi Sun

Taxing Your Sweet Tooth — video and article from NBC13.com, September 16, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Most Adult Americans at Some Risk for Heart Disease  — coverage from U.S. News & World Report/HealthDay, September 14, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Rob van Dam

For Your Health, Froot Loops  — coverage from The New York Times, September 4, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Heart Association Recommends Limits on Added Sugars — coverage from The Boston Globe, August 24, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

A Bittersweet Story: How Sugary Drinks Have Become the Key Target in the Battle Against Obesity — coverage from The Boston Globe, August 3, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Health Officials Are Not Too Sweet on Diet Soft Drinks Either  — coverage from The Boston Globe, August 3, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Food 101: What’s the Skinny on Vitamin D? — coverage from Examiner.com, July 27, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Edward Giovannucci

Walter Willett: The Facts on Diet and Breast Cancer — coverage from U.S. News & World Report, July 13, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Fat Hormone Reduces Risk Of Type 2 Diabetes  — coverage from WCBS-TV New York, July 7, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Rob van Dam

Taxing Soda — video from MSNBC.com, June 30, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Soda Tax Mulled as Senators Seek Health Overhaul Money — coverage from USA Today, June 14, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Walter Willett: On Getting Off Statins – What Kinds of Diet and Lifestyle Changes Will Suffice? — coverage from U.S. News & World Report.com, June 3, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Good to the Last Drop — coverage from The Boston Globe, May 11, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Rob van Dam and Alberto Ascherio

The Sugar We Drink  — coverage from My SA Life (San Antonio Express News), May 11, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett and Lilian Cheung

Web Site Raises Awareness on Sugars —coverage from The Harvard Crimson, April 24, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett and Lilian Cheung

Harvard Nutritionists Take Aim at Sugary Drinks — coverage from The Harvard University Gazette, April 23, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett and Lilian Cheung

Malnutrition, Obesity Present Global Food Challenges — coverage from The Harvard University Gazette, April 23, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Wafaie Fawzi

Soft Drinks and Energy Drinks: Too Sweet for Your Own Good — coverage from U.S. News and World Report.com, April 21, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett and Lilian Cheung

AACR 2009: Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer – Don’t Trust Any Single Study — coverage from Medscape Oncology.com, April 21, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett (free registration required to access site)

All Sugars Aren’t the Same: Glucose Is Better, Study Says  — coverage from Time.com, April 21, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

U.S. Nutritionists Urge New, Not-as-Sweet Drinks — coverage from Reuters.com, April 20, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett and Lilian Cheung

Fish Oil Supplements, EPA, DHA, and ALA: Does Your Omega-3 Source Matter? — coverage from U.S. News & World Report, April 8, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Obama Garden Watch: 10 Vegetables Worth A Fist Bump — coverage from The Huffington Post, April 6, 2009 featuring The Nutrition Source

Calorie Counters Have It Right, Diet Study Says — coverage from The Wall Street Journal.com, February 26, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Frank Sacks

It’s Not What You Eat, It’s How Much: Diet Does Not Matter as Much as Sticking to It, Study Says — coverage and video from ABC News.com, February 26, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Frank Sacks

In 4-Diet Study, All Lost Weight if They Watched Their Calories — coverage from USA Today.com, February 26, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Frank Sacks

Low-Fat? Low-Carbs? Answering Best Diet Question — coverage from CNN.com, February 26, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Frank Sacks

In Diet, It’s Calories that Count: Study Compared Range of Menus — coverage from The Boston Globe, February 26, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Frank Sacks

Study Zeroes In on Calories, Not Diet, for Loss — coverage from The New York Times, February 25, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Frank Sacks

Diets That Reduce Calories Lead to Weight Loss, Regardless of Carbohydrate, Protein or Fat Content — press release of February 25, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Frank Sacks.

Good Carbs, Bad Carbs, Which Is Which? Not All Carbohydrates Are Created Equal — coverage from U.S. News & World Report, February 19, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Does Eating Broccoli Help Prevent Cancer? — coverage from The Boston Globe, February 2, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

AHA Champions Omega-6 PUFAs to Counter Popular Nutrition Advice — coverage from TheHeart.org, January 28, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Dariush Mozaffarian.

The Fallacy of Total Fat; Doing Away With All Fat, Even Unsaturated Fat, Can Be Harmful — coverage from U.S. News & World Report, January 26, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Dietary Changes Come Hard; It’s Easier When Food Manufacturer’s Do the Work — coverage from U.S. News & World Report, January 26, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Nine Nutrition Essentials for 2009 — coverage from Cooking Light magazine, January 14, 2009 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Ask the expert: Coffee and health

The Expert: Dr. Rob van Dam

Dr. Rob van Dam

Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health

The Summary

  • Drinking up to six cups a day of coffee is not associated with increased risk of death from any cause, or death from cancer or cardiovascular disease.
  • Some people may still want to consider avoiding coffee or switching to decaf, especially women who are pregnant,or people who have a hard time controlling their blood pressure or blood sugar.
  • It’s best to brew coffee with a paper filter,to remove a substance that causes increases in LDL cholesterol.
  • Coffee may have potential health benefits, but more research needs to be done.
  • Read more about coffee and tea compared to other beverages.

Continue reading

Faculty in the Media 2008

Is Red Meat’s Bad Name Justified? — coverage from the Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

More Than Pickles and Ice Cream: The Link Between Diet and Fertility — coverage and podcast from Scientific American, October 15, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Caffeine, Breast Cancer Link Minimal — coverage from WebMD.com, October 13, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Hormone Discovery May Help Combat Diabetes — coverage from Reuters UK, September 18, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Gökhan Hotamisligil

Fat Molecule Fights Weight Gain — coverage from ScienceNOW Daily News, September 18, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Gökhan Hotamisligil

Following a Combination of Healthy Lifestyle Factors May Sharply Reduce Risk of Premature Death — press release of September 17, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Rob van Dam

Lifestyle Key to a Longer Life —  coverage from The Press Association, September 16, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Rob van Dam

Processed Meats and Your Kids — coverage and video from KSFY TV news, September 9, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Hard to Swallow — coverage from The Baltimore Sun, September 8, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Meir Stampfer

Fish Oil Supplements Help With Heart Failure — coverage from U.S. News & World Report, August 31, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Dariush Mozaffarian.

New Attack Ad on TV, But This One Targets Hot Dogs — coverage from The Associated Press, August 26, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Lilian Cheung

New Dunkin’ Donuts Menu Runs on Salt, Lacks Fiber — coverage from The Boston Herald, July 31, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Soya-Based Foods May Harm Male Fertility, Say Scientists  — coverage from The Guardian, July 24, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Jorge Chavarro

Best Diet: Low-Fat, Low-Carb or Mediterranean? — coverage from ABC News, July 16, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Meir Stampfer

Which Are Worse: Calories from Carbs or Fat? — coverage from Time, July 15, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

Babies Gain More Weight in Day Care — coverage from Time, July 8, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Karen Peterson

Omega-3, Some Omega-6 Fatty Acids Boost Cardiovascular Health — coverage from HealthDay.com, July 7, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Hannia Campos

So Many Vitamins, So Little Time: Truths and Myths About Dietary Supplements — coverage and video from ABC News 20/20, July 4, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Eric Rimm

Move Over Food Pyramid, There’s A New Guide — video from New England Cable News, June 12, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Lilian Cheung

Vitamins Improve Tuberculosis Treatment — coverage from Reuters UK, June 12, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Eduardo Villamor

Study Links Sunshine Vitamin, Heart Health — coverage from CBS News, June 9, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Edward Giovannucci

Metabolic Syndrome Not a Good Predictor of Death — coverage from Reuters, May 20, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Dariush Mozaffarian

You Name It and Exercise Helps It — coverage from The New York Times, April 29, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Frank Hu

State Ban on Trans Fat Would Set a National Example — op ed piece from the Metrowest Daily News, April 26, 2008 by HSPH’s Walter Willett and Massachusetts State Rep. Peter Koutoujian

High Levels of Urate Could Slow Parkinson’s — coverage from USA TODAY, April 14, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Alberto Ascherio

Less Sleep, More TV Leads To Overweight Infants And Toddlers — coverage from Science Daily, April 7, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Matthew Gillman

Some Scientists Questioning Folic Acid Fortification — coverage from Baltimore Sun, January 30, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Walter Willett

New Drugs and Hopes For an MS Vaccine — coverage from The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 22, 2007 featuring HSPH’s  Alberto Ascherio

Coffee, Pregnancy and Premenstrual Syndrome — coverage from The Times, January 28, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Alberto Ascherio.

Study Shows Caffeine Elevates Blood Glucose Levels in People With Diabetes — coverage from CBS News, January 29, 2008 featuring HSPH’s  Rob van Dam

Caffeine Could Spell Trouble For Diabetics — coverage from U.S. News and World Report, January 28, 2008 featuring HSPH’s Rob van Dam