Nutrition rating, labeling system proposed

October 20, 2011

A symbol, such as a check mark or a star, should be displayed on the front of every food item and beverage sold in grocery stores so harried shoppers can judge nutritional value at a glance, according to a government-sponsored report released Thursday.

In the report, a panel of experts from the Institute of Medicine told federal regulators that the epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases warrants a single rating system to help consumers sort through nutritional information. The panel devised a labeling plan intended to be simple enough for kids to use. But it’s unclear what regulators will do.

The food and beverage industry, which launched its own labeling initiative this year, immediately resisted the plan, arguing that consumers do not want the government to interpret information for them. But the panel concluded the opposite. It cited the success of the Energy Star ratings for appliances and five-star safety ratings for cars.

“Simply providing information about healthy choices has not consistently translated into changes in dietary behavior,” said Ellen Wartella, head of the panel and a professor of communications, psychology and human development at Northwestern University.

Under the panel’s plan, products would be graded in three categories — added sugar, sodium and fats. If the sodium level is acceptable, for example, the product would get a point (or check mark, or maybe a star). The same goes for the added sugar and fats, for a maximum of three points or symbols for each product.

Some products may earn no points. For instance, a sugary soda may have low levels of sodium and fat, but it would not be eligible for points because of its high sugar content, the group said.

Also, the calorie count would have to be displayed in familiar measures, such as “per cup.”

The appeal of this method is that it does not require consumers to have a deep knowledge of nutrition, said Matthew Kreuter, one of the panel members. “You just need to understand that three [symbols] is better than two, two is better than one, and one is better than zero,” said Kreuter, a health communications professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Food and Drug Administration, which co-sponsored the study, has been pressing for a front-of-package label since 2009. Back then, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg decried the barrage of sometimes inaccurate slogans displayed on food. Her criticisms came soon after the industry launched its now-defunct Smart Choices program, which gave its trademark green check mark to sugar-laden foods such Froot Loops.

Since then, the industry has launched a new program known as Facts Up Front. Under that voluntary initiative, food makers display nutrients that should be limited (such as fat) and some that should be encouraged (such as fiber.) But they do not rate products.

“Consumers have consistently told us that they want more information in a clear and easy-to-use format,” said Scott Faber, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which helped launch the effort. “What they don’t want are summary symbols that make judgments for them.”

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the panel’s proposal is far more promising than the industry effort. But it’s not flawless, he said. For instance, a diet soda would get three points under this system, even though it contains artificial coloring and other chemicals.

But the FDA and its partners, the Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who co-sponsored the study, may not get the chance to act.

“The reality is that even if the FDA wanted to do something, it would take a few years to implement the plan,” Jacobson said. “If the Obama administration departs next year, kiss the whole effort goodbye.”

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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