A Committee of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), National Academies, issued a 232-page report on October 20, 2011, recommending that agencies of the federal government should develop a new, simple front-of-package nutrition rating system with symbols, patterned after the EnergyStar® system, to help consumers make healthier food and beverage choices. For example, no stars would indicate not a healthy choice, one star better, two stars better still, and three stars would designate the healthiest choice of food or beverage. An example of what such a label on the front of a package might look like, from the Committee’s report, is shown above.
The Committee suggested that the front of food and beverage packaging should clearly display the calorie count of a realistic serving size, and should also clearly and graphically be labeled with symbols, such as stars or check marks, reflecting a star or point rating system. The stars or other symbols would quickly and simply show consumers whether the foods or beverages are healthy or unhealthy, measured by their levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars.
The Committee recommended that this new front-of-package rating system should apply to all foods and beverages and replace any other symbols currently being used on the front of packaging. “The front-of-package icons should also direct shoppers to the Nutrition Facts Panel on the reverse to get additional information about the healthfulness of products,” the IOM Committee recommended.
“Our report offers a path to develop an Energy Star® equivalent for foods and beverages,” said committee chair Ellen Wartella, Professor of Communication and psychology, and director of the Center on Media and Human Development, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
“A successful front-of-package nutrition rating system would enable shoppers to instantly recognize healthier products by their number of points and calorie information. It would encourage food and beverage producers to develop healthier fare and consumers to purchase products that are lower in calories and food components that contribute to chronic disease,” Dr. Wartella said.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) Study and Report
The new report, Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices, is available for download on the website of the National Academies Press website. Links to the report as well as a briefer version of the report are available from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is an independent, nonprofit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public. The IOM was established in 1970, as the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, which was chartered under President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The National Academy has expanded into what is collectively known as the National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Research Council, and the IOM.
The study was sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
More Detail on the IOM Committee’s Recommendations
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee’s report recommends a new rating system in which foods and beverages would earn points if their saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars contents are at or below levels considered acceptable, based on qualifying criteria. These nutrients are particularly bad for health and of concern as causes for the obesity epidemic currently plaguing America and much of the developed world.
Under the proposed rating system, the more points a food or beverage is assigned, the healthier it would be considered. A product could earn up to three points, one each for having sodium and added sugars below threshold amounts and one for having lower than designated levels of saturated and trans fats.
For example, according to the IOM Committee’s report, 100 percent whole wheat bread could qualify for all three points while graham crackers could earn two points for having levels of sodium and saturated and trans fats below the thresholds.
Points would be graphically displayed on packaging as check marks, stars, or some other icon to be determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Committee report suggested that all foods and beverages should pass a separate set of criteria to determine if they are eligible to earn points at all. If a product exceeds the eligibility criteria for any one of the nutrients of concern, it would not be able to display any points. For example, a sugar-sweetened soda could not earn points for having low sodium and no saturated or trans fats because its added sugar content is too high.
“Whether a food or beverage qualifies for points or not, it should prominently display the amount of calories per serving with servings described in familiar measurements, such as per slice or per cup. The front-of-package icons should also direct shoppers to the Nutrition Facts Panel on the reverse to get additional information about the healthfulness of products,” the IOM explained in a release on its website.
In an earlier Phase 1 report, the IOM Committee “concluded that calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium should be the focus of the new front-of-package system because they are most strongly associated with chronic disease,” according to the IOM release. The Committee’s Phase 2 report issued October 20, added sugars to the list of unhealthy nutrients.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which were issued by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) since the release of the IOM Committee’s first report, strongly recommend that people reduce their consumption of products containing added sugars.
The IOM Committee recommends that foods and beverages high in added sugars, which the USDA puts in a category called “Sugars, Sweets, and Beverages,” should automatically be ineligible to earn points in the new nutrition rating system proposed by the Committee.
“The new symbols representing products’ calories and point values should appear on all grocery products so that shoppers can readily compare food choices within categories, such as breakfast cereals, as well as across categories, such as fresh produce, frozen vegetables, and canned soups. Food manufacturers and retail outlets should display the symbols in consistent locations,” the IOM’s release explains.
The Committee’s report includes examples of what representative symbols and displays could look like (such as those pictured above). The Committee states that these examples are purely for illustrative purposes, and are not specifically endorsed by the Committee, nor have they been tested by the Committee to measure their effectiveness.
The Committee did not evaluate and assign points to all categories of food and beverage products, and specifically recommended that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should make such evaluations and develop and test potential icons and symbols for package displays.
In addition, the IOM Committee recommended that the FDA launch a “consumer awareness and education campaign” to promote and explain the rating system and its assigned graphic symbols when they are finalized.
The promotion and education campaign, as well as assuring that the rating system is universally adopted by private industry and displayed on all products, will be Key to helping shoppers understand and take advantage of the new rating system, the Committee said.
See the Institute of Medicine Project Website, for the Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices report
See the IOM Committee’s Full Report on the Institute of Medicine website.
A Report In Brief is also available from the Institute of Medicine.
See also the HelpingYouCare™ reports on:
- Diet & Nutrition: Physical Wellness;
- Exercise: Physical Wellness;
- Sleep, Hygiene, Quit Smoking & Other Healthy Practices: Physical Wellness; and
- Other Areas of Wellness.
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