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Should you trust front-of-box nutrition labels?

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Do company-sponsored nutrition labels on the fronts of food packages actually work at highlighting healthy items for consumers?

A new proposal says no, and argues they should be replaced.

A high-level panel of experts says food products should carry standardized, government-regulated front-of-pack nutrition rating labels that can help people quickly identify how healthy products are. Under the plan, an item would have a rating from zero to three in terms of its overall health profile; the label would also indicate how many calories are contained in a realistic serving size.

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The Institute of Medicine, a U.S.-based panel of scientists that often helps shape government policy in the United States as well as Canada, says the labelling program should replace the ones currently used by many companies to call attention to their products.

Front-of-pack nutrition labels have become a staple in the grocery store, including the well known Health Check program sponsored by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and Sensible Solutions from Kraft.

But some food experts criticize those programs for using lax criteria, failing to accurately disclose all relevant nutrition information to consumers or simply creating confusion.

There is already some resistance to the IOM's proposal. The U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association says it would rather use Facts Up Front, a front-of-pack labelling program announced in January by the food industry.

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer group, says the industry-led system is too complex and doesn't provide quick, clear information to help people make choices.

The issue of nutrition labelling has been the subject of heated debate for years, with differing opinions on how much information consumers need and what criteria should be applied to such programs.

What type of nutrition labelling would you find most helpful? Should governments get involved or leave the responsibility to the industry?

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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