The little nutrition box that's usually tucked on the back of packaged food products is a cornucopia of information.

Fat, sugar, cholesterol. It's all there on the Nutrition Facts Panel for those who take the time to read. It's also widely agreed that the dense thicket of numbers is about as appetizing as a bowl of day-old oatmeal.

So amid a growing battle against diseases like obesity and hypertension, food makers and industry watchdogs have taken up a common goal: Giving consumers a simpler way to decipher nutrition.

"We have to make it easier for Americans to eat healthier," said Mary Story, a University of Minnesota public health professor. "It's too bad we have to tell Americans which foods are healthy, but that's the food system we have."

The search for simpler nutrition labeling -- playing out on grocery shelves now -- could affect just about every product, from pasta to pickles to pepperoni. It comes at a time when pressure is building on major food makers, including Minnesota's General Mills and Hormel Foods, to provide healthier offerings.

The challenge is how to take complex nutrition information and distill it to a simple, easy-to-see label. How much information is the right amount? Are simple scores better, and if so, who sets the rules?

There's no agreement on the answers, despite years of effort and a multitude of approaches.

The food industry backs a just-the-facts approach and is rolling its latest solution into the marketplace now: package-front labels that give shoppers a quick read on key data. The "Facts Up Front" initiative is soon to be accompanied by a $50 million promotional blitz.

"It's aligned with what consumers use already," said Susan Crockett, chief health and nutrition officer at Golden Valley-based General Mills, one of the nation's largest packaged food makers.

Health advocates see another number jumble - Nutrition Facts Panel Light. They're partial to a more "interpretive" system that was recently laid out in a federal study - one with stars, checks or some other rating for healthiness.

And one governed by federal food regulators. Now, the grocery shelves are a maze of health claims -- high in fiber! one-third less fat! -- and a nest of nutrition numbers.

"It's been chaos so far," said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "There have been too many systems, and industry has used them in a self-serving way."

The cornerstone of nutrition labeling, the Nutrition Facts Panel, has been federally mandated since the 1990s for most food products. Studies over the years have found a correlation between reading the box and healthier eating.

Jamie Paisner, a mother of two from Golden Valley, is a diehard adherent. A nutrition devotee, she had filled her shopping cart with carrots, oranges and other produce on a recent trip to Cub Foods.

She knows the nutrition profile of each, but that's a harder task when it comes to processed foods. "So with processed foods, I read the [nutrition] label to the nth degree," Paisner said. "It's a chore and it takes a little time ... and not everyone has that time."

Indeed, several studies have found that many shoppers don't read the labels. And those who do are often confused, according to an October study by the Institute of Medicine.

With those limitations, there's been a proliferation of "front-of-package" nutrition labels in recent years. The American Heart Association has a "heart friendly" symbol that manufacturers can use on foods that qualify.

The nation's biggest food manufacturers -- General Mills, Kraft Foods, etc. -- came up with their own labels, sometimes mixing marketing claims with nutrition information.

Retailers got into the act, too. Eden Prairie-based Supervalu Inc., one of the nation's biggest supermarket chains and owner of Cub Foods, devised "Nutrition IQ." It features labels on shelves pointing out products high in good stuff like vitamins or fiber, or low in sodium or calories. It lacks any score or point system.

Studies have shown that the range of labels might just be confusing consumers, a concern also voiced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"You don't know whether it's a gimmick to get you to buy or the truth," said Leah Zbacnik of Crystal, who shopped at Cub Foods recently with her toddler son.

A failed attempt

With the clutter of labels, the nation's major packaged food makers came together in 2008 to launch "Smart Choices." It focused on a simple, common logo -- a green check mark -- to denote the various food makers' healthier products.

It was a fiasco.

Some foods that don't seem so healthy were deemed Smart Choices. Kellogg's Froot Loops and General Mills' Cocoa Puffs were particularly singled out by critics. The industry dropped the program after getting flak from the FDA and an investigative threat from Connecticut's attorney general.

Facts Up Front goes for an objective, numerical tack.

It consists of four barrel-shaped icons with content levels of calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium. Manufacturers can add up to two icons with information on any two of eight beneficial nutrients, like fiber or potassium.

Facts Up Front looks a lot like a label that General Mills has had on its cereals for four years, and industry executives say it's the sort of system shoppers want. "The research shows consumers want the facts, not interpretation," General Mills' Crockett said.

Angie Fox of Golden Valley is one of those consumers. During a recent trip to Cub, Fox said she pays close attention to nutrition information, and liked what she saw on a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes in her grocery cart. The cereal already sports the Facts Up Front label.

"I'd rather know the numbers than a star or a check," Fox said. "That's not enough information."

Are facts enough?

Backers of the interpretive approach include the authors of a recent report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), done at the behest of Congress.

"We wanted something you could see at a glance, a very simple system," said the U's Story, a member of the IOM panel that wrote the report. "You could go into the supermarket and tell your 6-year old, 'you can pick out a food with three checks on it,' and they could do it."

The idea would be to communicate the healthiness of a product through symbols on its label -- or a lack of symbols. A product could get one point each -- say a check or a star -- if it had acceptable levels of sugar, sodium and fat.

The IOM committee recommended some specific nutritional criteria to the FDA, though regulators would come up with complete parameters. The IOM also recommended that any FDA standard should replace any industry system.

Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food industry watchdog group, hailed the IOM's approach. But he noted that creating proper criteria for an IOM-styled system, and getting it approved by the FDA, could take years. "You could be in a nursing home by then."

Scoring nutrition

Still, some food retailers have adopted point-based labeling systems that spare no punches when it comes to dishing out low scores to popular food products.

In Minnesota, Coborn's and Hy-Vee have implemented NuVal, which scores products from 1 to 100, the higher the healthier. Most products score below 50.

"It's not our job to be the food police," said Bob Thueringer, chief operating officer of St. Cloud-based Coborn's. "But we felt with the obesity problem being as large as it is, we felt it was socially responsible to do this."

Retailers pay for NuVal, primarily devised by a Yale University doctor. What they get is a tool to burnish their brand and position it as health conscious.

The system has limitations: the ratings are pasted on grocery shelves instead of product labels, which tend to make a more lasting impression since they go home with shoppers.

Also, the system is built on an algorithm that weighs various nutritional aspects. Determining such weights is an imperfect science, and NuVal's algorithm is not public.

Still, Hy-Vee Chief Executive Ric Jurgens said NuVal is having a positive effect. He said one woman even told him she'd nixed a purchase of boxed macaroni and cheese for her children after reading its low score.

"Virtually everywhere I go," Jurgens said, "I get customers saying they appreciate putting NuVal in stores."

But while some supermarket chains have embraced both fact-based and interpretive approaches, it seems unlikely food makers will welcome the latter. "Interpretative systems are by their very nature subjective," said Sarah Levy, health policy manager for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group for packaged food makers.

Jacobson, from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said packaged food makers won't cotton to a "checks" or "stars" system because it could make some of their offerings look bad.

"Companies don't seem to mind highlighting their healthier products," he said. "They are adamantly opposed to putting a black mark on their least-healthy products."

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003