A system with symbols to illustrate the calorie, trans fats, sodium and added sugars should be displayed in the front of drink and food packaging, says the Institute of Medicine, USA, in a new report. The new system should be used on all foods and drinks – they should replace current systems placed on packaging. It is important for customers to know clearly and rapidly details on their products’ serving size and nutritional characteristics.

Committee chair Ellen Wartella, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Professor of Communication, professor of psychology, and director, Center on Media and Human Development, School of Communication, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., said:

“Our report offers a path to develop an Energy Star equivalent for foods and beverages. 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.”

Symbols used to reflect nutritional value and health benefits would form a rating system, the authors explain; the more points a product has, the healthier it is. The focus would be on energy content (calories), saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. Foods and beverages that scored below certain points would be below acceptable recommended levels.

The points system would have a maximum of three points – a product could earn 1 point for sodium, one for added sugars and one for trans fats and saturated fats, below a certain level in each case. A product with three points would be deemed healthy.

The IoM (Institute of Medicine) gives the example of whole wheat bread versus graham crackers:

  • Whole wheat bread – this would qualify for 3 points
  • Graham crackers – this would earn 2 points (bad fats and sodium below the thresholds)

The points would be clearly placed on the product in the form of check marks, stars, or some other kind of icon. The symbol would be decided by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

A separate set of criteria would be used to decide whether a product is eligible to earn points. Any product that exceeded the eligibility criteria would be banned from displaying any points. Hence, a sugar-sweetened soda might have low sodium and saturated or trans fats, but because its sugar content is very high, the manufacturer would not be allowed to place the points reflecting the low bad fats and low sodium content.

Regardless of how many points a product earns, calories per serving should be prominently displayed in a way that is familiar or user friendly for the consumer, such as calories per slice or per cup.

There should be an indication on the front of the package where nutritional information is on the back, in case the purchasers requires additional data on the healthfulness of the food or drink.

This report has been done in two phases. During Phase 1, the Committee focused on displaying symbols and points to reflect the sodium, calories, and saturated or trans fats, because they are strongly linked to the risk of developing chronic diseases. In Phase 2 they decided that information on added sugars should also be displayed.

Americans were urged to cut down on their consumption of food and beverages that had added sugars in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Those guidelines were issued after the release of the first report.

Several products have been deemed ‘high in added sugars’ by the USDA (Department of Agriculture) – they have been placed in a category called ‘Sugars, Sweets, and Beverages’. Products in this category are not allowed to earn points in this new proposed system.

The authors of the report say that retail outlets and food manufacturers should make sure the symbols are displayed in consistent locations so that shoppers can rapidly learn how to compare different products across categories.

Written by Christian Nordqvist