Institute of Medicine Recommends New Front-of-Package Rating System for Food, Beverages

Could a symbol, such as a check mark, on the front of a can or bottle help consumers make healthier beverage decisions? The Institute of Medicine (IOM) thinks so. The organization recently released a government-sponsored report recommending that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) adopt a single, standardized front-of-package symbol system for all food and beverage packaging.

Citing a desire to “encourage healthier choices and purchase behaviors,” and the effectiveness of Energy Star ratings for household appliances, an IOM committee comprised of nutrition and marketing educators concluded that a simple symbol that serves as a signal or cue would provide consumers with an easier way to identify healthy food and beverage options than would detailed nutritional information.

The committee recommended the creation of a point system that would be based on the serving size content of four categories closely associated with diet-related chronic disease: calories, saturated and trans fats, sodium, and sugars. Each point would be indicated by a symbol to convey the healthiness of the food or beverage. For example, low-calorie, low-fat, and highly nutritional products might receive three points and be identified by three stars, whereas high-calorie and high-fat products would receive no points, and, consequently, no stars.

“A successful front-of-package nutrition rating system would enable shoppers to instantly recognize healthier products by their number of points and calorie information,” said Ellen Wartella, the committee chair and professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “It would [also] encourage food and beverage producers to develop healthier fare.”

The study was met with frowns by food and beverage industry groups.

While the FDA, which co-sponsored the study, has supported a front-of-package label since 2009, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) criticized the report and single symbol plan. In a press release, the GMA stated that “consumers should be trusted to make decisions for themselves and their families” and that the plan is an “untested, interpretive approach.” Additionally, the GMA argues that its own “Facts Up Front” nutrition labeling system adequately displays calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium and nutrient content.

The American Beverage Association (ABA) released a statement that commended the IOM committee for its efforts to provide consumers with more readily visible nutritional information.  However, the ABA’s statement noted that “The beverage industry is already doing this with its Clear on Calories initiative, which places new calorie labels on the front of every bottle, can and pack we produce.”