Foods sold in U.S. stores need standardized labels to let consumers rank their nutritional value, according to a report from a government science panel.
The front-of-pack nutrition labels should use a ratings system similar to the federal Energy Star program that rates consumer product efficiency, the U.S. Institute of Medicine said today in the report. The labels should rate sodium, sugar and fat content on a scale of zero to three, the panel said.
The Obama administration has pushed for uniform nutrition labels in an effort to reduce obesity. The U.S. obesity rate has more than doubled since 1980 to 72 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Americans spend about $147 billion a year on obesity-related health costs, with the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs covering 42 percent. Obesity raises risks of diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
“Americans today have access to more information about nutrition than any previous generation, and yet the nation is facing a crisis of obesity and diet-related chronic disease,” said Ellen Wartella, the panel’s leader and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “It’s clear that there is a disconnect between dietary recommendations and actual consumption.”
The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture should consider “a fundamental shift in strategy that moves beyond simply informing consumers about nutrition facts and encourages them to purchase healthier food and beverages,” Wartella said today at a news conference.
Standardized labels on package fronts also should display calorie amounts in common household serving sizes, according to the panel for the institute, the health arm of the National Academies science advisory agency in Washington.
The food industry began a front-of-package labeling system this year in response to first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity and the FDA’s push for more accurate nutrition data. The voluntary program doesn’t include the point-based rating system urged by the Institute panel.
The Facts Up Front program, announced in January by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, uses symbols known as nutrition keys to disclose calorie counts and the amount of saturated fat, sodium and sugars in each serving. The trade groups surveyed more than 7,000 consumers in developing the symbols.
“The most effective programs are those that consumers embrace,” the grocers’ group said today in an e-mail. “Consumers have said repeatedly that they want to make their own judgments, rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat. We have concerns about the untested, interpretive approach suggested by the IOM committee.”
The grocers’ group, based in Washington, represents more than 300 companies including Nestle SA of Vevey, Switzerland, and Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft Foods Inc., the world’s two biggest food companies, as well as Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. and Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo Inc., the two largest soft-drink makers. Kroger Co., the largest U.S. supermarket chain based in Cincinnati, is among the Arlington, Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute’s 1,500 members.
The committee’s proposed rating system is “eminently sensible” and “far preferable” to the industry’s program, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group in Washington.
“The industry hopes to preempt more consumer-friendly requirements by the FDA,” Jacobson said today in an e-mail. “The industry’s complex scheme requires consumers to consider the amounts of calories and four to six nutrients, without any numerical score or useful symbols to convey a food’s nutritional value.”
The FDA will review the panel’s recommendations as part of its “continuing assessment of possible approaches” to nutrition labeling on package fronts, Siobhan DeLancey, an agency spokeswoman, said today in an e-mail. The FDA, CDC and USDA had requested the institute panel’s study.
“FDA agrees consumers can benefit from a front-of-pack labeling system that conveys nutrition information in a manner that is simple and consistent with the Nutrition Facts panel,” DeLancey said. “The IOM report thoughtfully reveals some of the complexities of achieving this goal.”
The Institute panel considered the Energy Star program a good model for nutrition labels because it “interprets the data for the consumer,” said Matthew Kreuter, a member of the Institute committee. The 19-year-old program, overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department, rates the energy efficiency of appliances, electronics and building products.
Consumers relying on the Energy Star symbols “don’t have to know anything about kilowatt hours or any of those scientific specifications,” said Kreuter, who is director of the Health Communication Research Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis.
The panel’s food-rating proposal is simpler than the industry’s voluntary labels because consumers wouldn’t need “any amount of nutrition knowledge” or “a great deal of literacy” to understand it, Kreuter said.
“You just need to understand that three is better than two, two is better than one, one is better than zero,” Kreuter said. The proposed system also could prompt foodmakers to reformulate products to get “more favorable ratings,” he said.