The Institute of Medicine has released a report recommending that the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture consider “a fundamental shift in strategy” when it comes to nutrition labeling.” While the recommendation for a “front-of-package” (FOP) labeling system is not new, the IOM authors don’t just want the usual nutrition facts to be moved from the back of the package to the front; rather, new labels should specifically encourage shoppers to choose healthier products.
The authors cite EPA’s Energy Star program as a successful government labeling system, because it quickly identifies the most energy-efficient products and consumer awareness of the label’s meaning is high. While leaving the details (and the testing and implementation) up to FDA and USDA, the IOM committee recommends a system with the following characteristics:
- One simple, standard symbol translating information from the Nutrition Facts panel (NFP) on each product into a quickly and easily grasped health meaning,making healthier options unmistakable;
Calories in common household measure serving sizes (shelf tags to be used on bulk items such as fruits and vegetables as well as packaged goods), and
Zero to three nutritional “points” (for saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars);
- Appearing on all grocery products, allowing consumers to compare food choices across and within categories (determination for universal implementation of the symbol system must be preceded by consumer testing and conducted in conjunction with an education and promotion program);
- Appearing in a consistent location across products;
- Practical to implement by being consistent with nutrition labeling regulations;
- Integrated with the NFP so that the FOP symbol system and the NFP are mutually reinforcing;
- Providing a non-proprietary, transparent translation of nutrition information into health meaning; and
- Made prominent and useful to consumers through an ongoing and frequently refreshed program of promotion integrating the efforts of all concerned parties.
A news release accompanying the report gives some examples of how this might work:
The report envisions a rating system in which foods and beverages earn points if their amounts of nutrients of concern — saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars — are at or below levels considered acceptable based on qualifying criteria. The more points a food or beverage has, the healthier it is. A product could earn up to three points, one each for having sodium and added sugars that do not exceed threshold amounts and one for having saturated and trans fats below designated levels. For example, 100 percent whole wheat bread could qualify for all three points while graham crackers could earn two points for having levels of sodium and saturated and trans fats below the thresholds. Points would be graphically displayed on packaging as check marks, stars, or some other icon to be determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Foods and beverages should pass a separate set of criteria to determine if they are eligible to earn points at all, the report adds. If a product exceeds the eligibility criteria for any one of the nutrients of concern, it would not be able to display any points. For example, a sugar-sweetened soda could not earn points for having low sodium and no saturated or trans fats because its added sugar content is too high.
Whether a food or beverage qualifies for points or not, it should prominently display the amount of calories per serving with servings described in familiar measurements, such as per slice or per cup. The front-of-package icons should also direct shoppers to the Nutrition Facts Panel on the reverse to get additional information about the healthfulness of products.
While I appreciate and make use of the Nutrition Facts already required on packaged foods and beverages, I recognize that their presence doesn’t always translate into healthy purchasing decisions. I’ve had a few realizations over the years that what I thought was a low-calorie meal was only low-calorie if I left half of it in the container. I often have to remind myself that foods trumpeting their low fat content may still be loaded with added sugar, and that I need to look carefully at the per-serving sodium content of a soup that’s surprisingly tasty. A system like the one the IOM committee recommends would eliminate the need for me to know and remind myself about these things.
And then there’s the issue of price. Shoppers who work hard to keep their grocery bills low are probably paying more attention to cost comparisons that calorie counts. A simpler label that helps shoppers easily spot the healthiest products could make it easier to identify items that are both affordable and nutritious. And the existence of such a label could encourage food manufacturers to cut the amounts of sodium, fat, and added sugar they’re using.
These recommendations are only the first step in what will be a long (and, I’m sure, contentious) process to improve nutritional labeling. If the end result is healthier food consumption, it’ll be worth the effort.