Last week, in a report to federal regulators, the Institute of Medicine recommended a new logo for the front of all packaged food sold in grocery stores. The star rating system, similar to the Energy Star rating on appliances, would give consumers a quick assessment of the nutritional value of a product.
Congress requested the report, which took two years. It calls on agencies to establish a uniform label system to replace the confusion that exists on front-of-package labels that now greet consumers on store shelves. People are busy and with so many products to choose from they rarely take the time to scrutinize a product before purchasing it.
The IOM committee recommends that the packaging label on the front of products be standardized and located in the same spot on all products, and reflect the current healthy dietary recommendations from the USDA and other groups. A single system would allow consumers to quickly compare products.
The report further recommends a rating system that uses symbols to convey calorie count by serving size, and a point system that lets consumers know if the levels of saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and sugar in the products are more or less healthy than what is recommended. Over the years, many stores and manufacturers have developed their own rating systems and nutrition symbols and many shoppers are confused as to what is accurate information. Consumers have gotten fatter even as more information has been made available.
Two-thirds of U.S. adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese. Excess weight is a key factor in many chronic problems such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. A study in January by the Prevention Institute found that 84 percent of foods marketed to children had front-of-the package labels that failed to describe basic nutritional criteria for fat, sodium, sugar or fiber.
A food product would be considered for a healthy food package label based on how much sugar, salt and fat it contained. These three nutrients were chosen because they are linked to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. To be eligible for a “healthy” label, the product would have to have limited amounts of sugar, salt and trans fats. Items with the most points would be a sign to consumers that these are the healthiest choices.
“For example, 100 percent whole-wheat bread could earn all three points; graham crackers could earn two points for fats and sodium; and an oat-and-peanut butter bar could earn one point for sodium”, the committee noted.
Consumers surveyed said they want clearer nutrition information, but they have also stated they don’t want summary symbols, stars, checks or numbers that make decisions for them. They want to be trusted to make these choices and don’t want to be told which foods they should and should not eat.
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has said she wants to improve the front-of-package labels, but not surprisingly, the agency is not expected to move quickly on the institute’s recommendations. The FDA said it was continuing to assess the topic.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry group that represents major food companies, plans to go ahead with their own labeling plan, called Facts Up Front. Under the plan, labels show the amount of various nutrients in grams or other units and, in many cases the percent of a recommended daily value for each nutrient that they supply. Scott Faber, vice president of the food makers’ group, has said they have a road-tested, ready-to-roll front-of-pack system that is already in the market place, and believes we should provide more information on the front of packages now and not keep consumers waiting.
Simplifying front package labeling so consumers can make healthier choices is a great idea if the IOM can make it work. However, the question remains if there is any type of a rating system that will encourage people to shop healthier, so that they eat healthier and be healthier.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.