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Nutrition Keys and the FDA

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nut_keys.jpg“Nutrition Keys” is not the sexiest name the food industry could have chosen, but maybe that’s the point. It’s about as far away as one can get from Smart Choices, the earlier, ill-fated industry initiative that was pulled in 2009 after the Food and Drug Administration criticized it for being too lenient.

The voluntary, $50-million Nutrition Keys was more than a year in development. The new front-of-pack program was released by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and has already received the support of one major manufacturer, the Campbell Soup Company. More companies are sure to follow, and the rollout is expected to be quick, according to officials, with the panels appearing on packages by the end of 2011.

Nutrition Keys is a multi-tab logo (see above) that starts on the left with several pieces of mandatory information. It begins with calories per serving, and then moves on to nutrients to limit, such as saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Large numbers depict the amount of the nutrient per serving (say 5 grams); a second number highlighted underneath represents the percentage that amount is of the daily allowance for that nutrient.

After that, manufacturers can highlight a set number of beneficial nutrients. There must be at least 10% of daily allowances per serving for these to be mentioned, and are limited to fiber, protein or specific vitamins and minerals (unfortunately, the logo above does not display the tabs for the "good" nutrients).

The timing of the release is somewhat odd or, at least, at conflict with the FDA’s ongoing review of nutrition-rating systems. When Smart Choices suspended operations in October 2009, officials said they would work with the agency on its review, in anticipation of working towards a national standard.

At the same time, FMI and GMA began working on a new system after a call to action issued by First Lady Michelle Obama and her “Let’s Move!” campaign, which she launched to address childhood obesity. The result is Nutrition Keys.

Of course, there are already detractors who suspect that the industry is once again trying to pre-empt government meddling with another round of self-policing. Most of them are calling on food companies to wait for the federal government to act. The only problem with that request is that, even an agency like the FDA — that has recently speeded up action on certain issues — still needs a long time to tackle an issue like nutrition labeling. And in government-speak, that means years.

That's not to say the FDA shouldn't continue its efforts. The back-of-the-pack Nutrition Facts panel just isn’t cutting it anymore. Something new, simple and motivating needs to be introduced. For now, Nutrition Keys may be just the thing. With the FDA’s ongoing review, anyone bold enough to introduce a new labeling program has got to know that they’re going to be evaluated with a critical eye.

That’s what makes me think the developers of Nutrition Keys believe that, this time, they’ve created something transparent and objective that will meet with government approval.

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