December 8, 2008

Leaving Out Vital Information

Vending and food service company Next Generation has introduced Vitalities, a sticker-based initiative which "provides customers the ability to make selection based on healthy snack and beverage alternatives, while still having the flexibility to select name brand product options."

In essence, products that meet certain health criteria -- created with the help of a Registered Dietitian -- get a sticker next to their item code.

On the food side, the following categories are offered: lower in fat, lower in sugar, lower in carbs, and "higher energy."

Why are they leaving out the most important concept-- CALORIE information?

Consider the following. To qualify as "low in sugar", a product must meet one of the following criteria:

* Sugar Free
* No Sugar Added
* Contains less than 4 grams of sugar

These divisions are very helpful for snack companies because they don't evaluate their products from a whole nutrition profile.

Per the above mentioned standards, something like Sugar-Free Reese's Peanut Butter Cups would receive a "low in sugar" sticker (and therefore seem like a healthy choice) despite offering 6 grams of saturated fat (30% of a day's worth) in one 180-calorie serving.

Similarly, a bag of Skittles can receive a healthy-sounding "low-fat sticker", all while offering 250 calories and 12 teaspoons of sugar!

I am also perplexed by the "lower in carbs" sticker. Unless someone has diabetes, there is no reason to believe that low carb figures by default indicate a healthier choice.

The beverage stickers are slightly better, as they are divided into these four categories: lower in fat, lower in calories (yay!), lower in caffeine, and higher in nutrients.

My concern here is the "lower in fat" label, which makes no mention of calories in its criteria:

* Less than 2.5 grams of fat per 8 ounce portion
* Skim and 1% milk
* Flavored waters
* Juices
* Energy drinks

Notice that soda can not qualify for this sticker. Fine and dandy, but sweetened flavored waters (often containing just as much sugar and as many calories as soda) can.

This initiative is a start, but I would much prefer vending machines post calorie information on items.

After all, unless people have those figures memorized, they are unable to see them until they have already made their purchase.

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