Without waiting for the U.S. government to draw up regulations, food and beverage manufacturers have come up with their own system to inform consumers about nutritional content.

The new label, which will appear on the front of products instead of the back, is designed by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). It will list calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars contained in each product.

"We share First Lady Michelle Obama's goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation," said Pamela G. Bailey, president and Chief Executive Officer of GMA.  "Food and beverage companies have a strong track record of providing consumers with the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle, and this program represents a significant milestone in our ongoing effort to help consumers construct a healthy diet."

Will promote some nutrients

In addition to the key nutrition information, the Nutrition Keys icon on some products will also display information about "nutrients to encourage" that are important for a healthy diet, but are under-consumed by the general population.  Nutrients to encourage that may appear on some products as part of the Nutrition Keys icon are: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and also protein.

The Board of Directors of GMA and FMI adopted a joint resolution in support of the Nutrition Keys initiative at their January 23 joint board meeting.  Those companies represent the vast majority of food and beverage products sold in local stores.

Critics pan

Some food industry critics are not impressed. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the food industry has tried voluntary efforts before, including 2009's Smart Choices labeling program that he says lost all credibility when it put its logo on what he called junk foods.

"It's unfortunate the industry wouldn't adopt a more effective system or simply wait until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) developed a system that would be as useful to consumers as possible," Jacobson said.

Jacobson said the point of a front-label nutrition information or symbols should be to convey quickly and simply how healthful a food is. A system with green, yellow, and red dots to indicate whether a food has a good, middling, or poor nutritional quality would probably be a lot more effective than industry's system, he said.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) was also a critic of the previous Smart Choices campaign. She doesn't appear to be impressed with this latest effort either.

"The industry's unveiling today of its front-of-package labeling system is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA's effort to develop strong guidelines for FOP labels," she said.

DeLauro said she urges the FDA to continue developing a "useful and simple" labeling system that would help consumers avoid foods that promote obesity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports two-thirds of U.S. adults and 15 percent of children are overweight or obese. In some states, the childhood obesity rate is above 30 percent.