I.O.M. report calls for shift in labeling strategy

by Eric Schroeder
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WASHINGTON — A new report from a committee appointed by the Institute of Medicine (I.O.M.) has concluded it is time for a fundamental shift in the way information about the healthfulness of foods is presented on the front of food packages.

“It is time for a fundamental shift in strategy, a move away from the systems that mostly provide nutrition and information without clear guidance about its healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier food choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information,” the committee said.

The report, “Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices,” was sponsored by the I.O.M., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The committee tasked with the study split its research into two phases. The first phase included an examination of current nutrition rating systems and the scientific research that underlies them, with a report on the findings released in October 2010.

The second phase, which is the subject of the most recent report, sought to outline the benefits of a single, simple food guidance system on the front of packages that best promotes health and will be useful to consumers.

“An F.O.P. (front-of-package) system should be standardized, and it also should motivate food and beverage companies to reformulate their products to be healthier and encourage food retailers to prominently display products that meet this standard,” the I.O.M. committee said.

In outlining the characteristics of a model F.O.P. system, the I.O.M. committee pointed to the government’s Energy Star program, which the committee said uses a simple symbol to identify equipment and materials that meet certain standards of energy efficiency.

Ultimately, though, the committee described a successful F.O.P. symbol system as one that is simple — not requiring specific or sophisticated nutritional knowledge to understand the meaning; interpretive — nutrition information provided as guidance rather than as specific facts; ordinal — offering nutritional guidance by using a scaled or ranking system; and supported by communications — with readily remembered names or identifiable symbols.

The committee said the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A. should develop, test and implement a single, standard F.O.P. system to appear on all products, replacing any existing system. Any new system should include calories in household servings on all products, while saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars should form the basis of the system, the committee said.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (G.M.A.) and the Food Marketing Institute (F.M.I.), which earlier this year launched Facts Up Front, a fact-based F.O.P. nutrition labeling system, expressed concern about what they called the “untested, interpretive approach” suggested by the I.O.M. committee.

“Facts Up Front was developed through extensive consumer testing that showed consumers want fact-based information on calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium, and where appropriate, nutrients to encourage,” the G.M.A. and the F.M.I. said. “The Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols report adds a perspective to the national dialogue about front-of-pack nutrition labeling. In the meantime, food and beverage companies have developed a real-world program that delivers real value to real consumers in real time.

“Consumers have told us that they want simple and easy-to-use information and that they should be trusted to make decisions for themselves and their families. The most effective programs are those that consumers embrace, and 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. That is the guiding principle of Facts Up Front, and why we have concerns about the untested, interpretive approach suggested by the I.O.M. committee.”

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