The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute announced a voluntary industry program that will allow participating companies to place certain nutritional information on the front of food packaging.

The Nutrition Keys system primarily consists of four icons displaying information about calories, sugar, saturated fat and sodium. The system also allows manufacturers to display up to two “nutrients to encourage” on each package from a list of eight (calcium, fiber, iron, potassium, protein and vitamins A, C and D). These nutrients may be placed on the package only if the product has more than 10 percent of the daily value per serving of the nutrient and meets the Food and Drug Administration’s requirements for a “good source” nutrient content claim.

Recognizing that some packaging may not have enough space to accommodate all four icons, smaller food packages may use just one icon, representing calories in a serving of the food. Larger packaging will include all four basic icons, and up to two other “nutrients to encourage.” “Today’s sophisticated consumer wants more information about their food than ever before,” said Leslie Sarasin, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Food Marketing Institute. “Nutrition Keys, combined with the many innovative nutrition education tools and programs in retail stores, is helping us meet that challenge and exceed consumer expectations.”

The icons will begin appearing in 2011, and the food and beverage manufacturers and retailers participating in the program have invested $50 million for a marketing campaign to build consumer awareness and promote the use of the icons, including in-store marketing, public relations and advertising.

To see examples of the Nutrition Keys system on food products, click here.

Why it matters: Nutrition Keys is not the industry’s first attempt at a self-regulating nutritional labeling program. In 2009 the industry launched Smart Choices, a nutritional labeling program that was intended to identify foods which met certain nutritional standards and highlight them for consumers using a green label on the front of packages. But the program came under fire after certain breakfast cereals with high sugar content were designated a healthy choice, resulting in investigations by the FDA and several state attorneys general. Currently the FDA is researching and working on its own labeling rules.