THURSDAY, Oct. 20, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. agencies should revamp the labels on the front of food and beverage packages to make it as simple as possible for consumers to figure out how nutritious a product really is, a new Institute of Medicine report concludes.
"There are a lot of different [rating] systems out there," said Ellen Wartella, chair of the IOM committee that wrote the report, and director of the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University. "But no one system has all the features we think are most helpful. Our goal is to say no one has to be a nutrition scientist to discern whether a packaged food is healthy or not healthy."
"We want something that's readily identifiable, easily understood and that cues the consumer that this is a healthy product," Wartella added.
The report suggests creating a rating system that uses symbols to convey calorie counts by serving size, and a point system that tells consumers whether the levels of saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and sugar in the products are more or less healthy than recommended.
Front-package labels have grown in popularity over the last decade, but because there are so many different nutrition symbols and rating systems, many shoppers have just become confused, Wartella said.
The IOM committee recommends that front packaging labels be standardized and, at the same time, motivate food and beverage companies to reformulate products to be healthier and get food stores to prominently display products that meet healthier standards.
The committee's concept is for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop and test labels that are visual and easy to understand. The idea is that government food labels can serve the same purpose as the government's Energy Star program, which rates appliances by their energy efficiency.
The label should also be located in the same spot on all products, and reflect the current healthy dietary recommendations from the USDA and other groups.
A single system would let consumers quickly compare choices within a variety of food categories, the report said.
Determining whether or not a product can carry a healthy food package label would be done on a point system based on how much sugar, salt and fat it contained. These were picked because they are linked to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, among other illnesses.
To be eligible for a "healthy" label, the product would have to have limited amounts of sugar, salt and trans fats, the IOM committee said.
"For example, 100 percent whole-wheat bread could earn all three points; graham crackers could earn two points for fats and sodium; and an oat-and-peanut butter bar could earn one point for sodium," the committee noted.
Items with the most points would signal to consumers that these are the healthiest choices.
Samantha Heller, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., said that "one of the reasons nutrition labels are so confusing is that nutrition is very complicated.
"In fact, the current labeling system is so confounding to consumers that as part of a series of adult nutrition classes, I devote a one-hour class to reading and understanding the Nutrition Facts Panel," she added.
Simplifying front package labeling so consumers can make healthier choices is a great idea if the IOM can make it work, Heller said. "It is a huge undertaking and fraught with difficulties on many levels, from the food companies push-back to consumer understanding and education," she said.
It is difficult to apply the same standards to all foods, Heller said. "Some healthy foods may come up short and some less-than-healthy foods may end up getting more checks than they really deserve," she noted. "All this said, we do need an easy guidance system of some kind that will encourage consumers to make informed decisions about their food choices. The real question is, will a ratings system ultimately affect peoples buying habits or their health?" she added.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has already come up with its own labeling system.
"In January, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute launched Facts Up Front, a fact-based, front-of-pack nutrition labeling system to help busy consumers -- especially parents -- make informed decisions when they shop," said association spokesman Brian Kennedy.
The IOM report is an addition to the national dialogue about such nutrition labeling, Kennedy said.
"However, it is largely an academic exercise, like many before it. The point-based system recommended by the IOM is unproven, complex and therefore likely to be confusing. It would also fail to provide consumers with the simple and clear facts they want," he added. "Meanwhile, food and beverage companies have developed a real-world program that delivers real value to consumers in real time."
For more information on healthy diets, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture.