Food packages often make sweeping claims about the health benefits of the product inside: “Contains 50 percent more whole grains than the leading brand,” “Now with 30 percent less fat,” or “Good source of calcium” are declarations repeated up and down grocery store aisles.
But if the government acts on a new set of recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), all packages will also have to display a standardized label telling consumers the food’s actual health value.
The IOM released a report Thursday showing the need for a universal, government-run labeling system that gives consumers a clearer picture of a product’s nutritional value.
Shoppers need an easy way to tell which products are healthier, and which will actually help them meet required servings of beneficial nutrients, the report finds.
“It is time for a fundamental shift in strategy, a move away from systems that mostly provide nutrition information without clear guidance about its healthfulness,” says the report.
“Ultimately, a new [labeling] system that helps both simplify and clarify the information provided about foods could bring to an end the confusion that many people have about food choices.”
The report was commissioned by Congress as part of an effort to reduce the gap between the dietary recommendations and what Americans actually eat.
The study was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and IOM in order to evaluate current nutrition labeling and determine what a single system would look like – and how it would influence consumer choices.
Researchers determined that a successful FOP (Front of Packaging) model must offer guidance to consumers, rather than just presenting specific facts. It should be understandable to the average consumer, and offer a ranking that compares different foods.
One strategy recommended by the authors is a scoring system based on how many saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars a product contains. Products would be ranked on a scale of zero to three “points,” with three being the healthiest.
This way, consumers could use the same scale to compare different products, and steer towards those with better ratings.
“The Institute of Medicine’s proposal is eminently sensible – and will probably be roundly condemned by food manufacturers,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in a statement Thursday.
“A simple icon with 3, 2, 1, or zero check marks would give shoppers at-a-glance information about nutritional booby traps lurking inside packaged foods.”
Labels should also include the number of calories in household servings on all products, says the report.
It recommends that all grocery products be required to display such FOP labels in a consistent location across products.
IOM hopes that a uniform Front of Packaging system will not only prompt consumers to make better choices at the supermarket, but will give companies an incentive to make their products healthier in order to achieve higher ratings.
“An FOP system…should motivate food and beverage companies to reformulate their products to be healthier and encourage food retailers to prominently display products that meet this standard.”
Jacobson points out, though, that despite the advantages of this proposed practice, it would still leave gaps in important elements of nutrition labeling.
“It is worth noting that the IOM’s approach, like all of the systems yet developed, still has holes that the FDA would have to address,” he says.
“For instance, it gives no consideration to foods’ vitamin, mineral, fiber, or protein content. Also, white bread, whole wheat bread, broccoli, artificially sweetened soft drinks, and artificially colored and flavored diet Jell-O would all have top scores of 3. Still, the FDA should promptly assign a task force to develop a mandatory front-of-package labeling regulation based on the IOM’s advice.”