The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has released the second of its two-phase report on front-of-package (FOP) rating systems and symbols for food products, advocating a “fundamental shift” in labeling strategy. While its first phase, released in October 2010, analyzed nutrition rating systems and the scientific research that underlies them, the new 231-page assessment examines consumers’ use and understanding of FOP systems. Details of the first phase were featured in Issue 368 of this Update.

Concluding that “it is time for a move away from front-of-package systems that mostly provide nutrition information on foods or beverages but don’t give clear guidance about their healthfulness,” IOM recommends that the Food and Drug Administration allow only four items on any FOP system— calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium, and sugar. It suggests the agency develop, test and implement a single, standard point system from zero to three—designated by a simple icon like check marks or stars—indicating the products’ levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. According to IOM, “The more points a food or beverage has, the healthier it is. This system would encourage food and beverage producers to develop healthier fare and consumers to quickly and easily find healthier products when they shop.” IOM also recommends that a new FOP system feature a “multi-stakeholder, multi-faceted awareness and promotion campaign that includes ongoing monitoring, research, and evaluation.”  

Center for Science in the Public Interest Executive Director Michael Jacobson called IOM’s proposal “eminently sensible” and “far preferable” to the voluntary “Facts Up Front” labeling program the grocery industry has endorsed. “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,” he said. Still, the approach “has holes that the FDA would have to address,” he noted. “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.”

Meanwhile, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) called IOM’s proposal an “untested, interpretive approach,” and praised the Facts Up Front labeling system as a “real-world program that delivers real value to consumers in real time.” The group noted that “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.” See News from the National Academies, CSPI News Release and GMA News Release, October 20, 2011.