IOM Report: Food Nutrition Labels Should Be Simple, On Front

The food industry should provide simple, clearly-worded nutrition information on the front of food packages, according to a new report from the Institute of Medicine.

The information "should focus on the nutrients most responsible for obesity and chronic diseases: calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium," The New York Times reports. The report, written by a team of health specialists, "is meant to help Congress and the Food and Drug Administration decide what to do about the proliferation of certain labeling practices that food companies and retailers use to promote the nutritional aspects of food products. Many of the methods, often accompanied by checkmarks or snappy logos, have been criticized for trumpeting the beneficial aspects of packaged foods, like vitamins or fiber content, while ignoring less appealing ones, like high sodium or sugar levels. That has led to labels for sugary cereals or salt-laden frozen dinners that indicate they are healthy food choices. The report suggests a package-front label that would essentially do the opposite. It called for the label to emphasize the potentially harmful nutrients in the food product — for example, those that promote obesity, diabetes or heart disease — and exclude information about beneficial nutrients, like fiber or vitamins" (Neuman, 10/13).

The Associated Press/USA Today: "The panel studied an array of ratings systems used on food packaging — many created by the companies themselves. The symbols are not regulated, though the Food and Drug Administration has warned food manufacturers that the agency will crack down on inaccurate food labeling. Those government standards are not yet developed, however, and it is unclear when they will be. … The Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academies, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters, looked at the labels as part of a larger study for the Centers for Disease Control. The committee will make stronger recommendations in a future report on the issue and assess whether the FDA should have a standardized system for the front of food packages" (10/13).

The Wall Street Journal Health Blog: "[R]atings systems have proliferated over the last few years but aren't consistent in how they gauge whether a food qualifies as healthful. Some highlight products that meet a certain nutritional bar, while others assess and rate all the foods in the supermarket. One high-profile labeling program, Smart Choices, was supported by food industry biggies such as Kellogg, Pepsi and ConAgra, but ended last year almost as soon as it began. The program featured a green check symbol on the front of products meeting certain nutritional standards — but those standards, which allowed for the inclusion of Froot Loops and other cereals containing roughly 40% sugar, got a drubbing from independent nutrition experts. The program 'postponed operations' after the FDA said it would develop standards for the ratings systems" (Hobson, 10/13).

Meanwhile, The Washington Times reports on states and local governments that "are increasingly using the government's power to battle rising obesity rates by taxing sugar-sweetened drinks, changing food labeling and promoting exercise." But some interest groups are fighting against the new taxes. "Americans Against Food Taxes (AAFT) has begun ad campaigns in Washington and elsewhere nationwide featuring moms at grocery stores saying, 'I can decide what to buy without government help. The government is just getting too involved in our personal lives.' One radio ad also makes it political, though not personal — saying voters need to send Congress a message, but giving no names of anyone on any ballot." The American Beverage Council has joined AAFT "in vigorously campaigning against food taxes" (Entzminger, 10/13).

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