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Spring 2012 Vol. 12 Number 1

Table of Contents

Healthy Foods at a Glance

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A Universal Rating System Could Make
It Easier to Spot Healthier Choices

Many shoppers navigating the bewildering array of foods and drinks in the typical American supermarket or convenience store have longed for a simple way to make healthy choices. Despite a desire to purchase healthier items, people often do not have the time or inclination to examine the detailed nutritional information printed in the Nutrition Facts panels on the back of food packages.

The food industry and health organizations have responded by developing an assortment of symbols, such as check marks, traffic lights, or numbers, designed to convey nutritional information on package fronts. Some, like Walmart’s new “Great for You” system, use a single symbol to indicate that a product meets a range of nutritional criteria. Others, such as the “Nutrition Keys” developed by industry trade groups, display calories and the amount of various nutrients in a product.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of such symbols and numbers has led to as much confusion as clarity. In addition, consumers’ trust in these nutrition rating systems has been marred by incidents such as high-sugar breakfast cereal earning one system’s stamp of approval.

Last year the Institute of Medicine sought to cut through the confusion by proposing nutrition rating criteria based on sound science and a simple set of icons to convey the healthiness of products at a glance.

All foods and beverages should have to show calories per serving on the front of their packaging, IOM said in its report. And rather than numbers or symbols representing a gamut of nutrients, packages should be limited to displaying a set of three icons that represent saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. These are the nutritional components of greatest concern given their association with chronic diseases.

The icons shown would indicate instantly how healthy a food or beverage is, with more icons signaling a healthier choice. A food or beverage could earn up to three symbols, one each for having sodium, added sugars, and saturated and trans fats below designated amounts. For example, 100 percent whole wheat bread could display three icons while graham crackers might show two for acceptable levels of sodium and unhealthy fats, and a breakfast bar may earn only one for sodium or none if it exceeds all thresholds.

Foods and beverages should be disqualified from displaying any symbols, however, if they have excessive amounts of even one of these nutrients, the report added. For example, sugar-sweetened soda contains very little sodium and no unhealthy fats, but exorbitant amounts of added sugars and calories per serving would prevent it from making the grade as a healthier choice.

Some people question whether limiting rating systems to calories and unhealthy food components means that shoppers will be deprived of useful information about essential nutrients such as fiber and iron. On the other hand, displaying a wide variety of numbers or icons does not offer at-a-glance simplicity and could mislead consumers about the overall healthfulness of products, the report shows. Moreover, the IOM system would not preclude claims such as “good source of fiber” that regulations permit food producers to put on package fronts.

The report was written at the request of the regulatory agencies that oversee the content of food labels. Many individuals and groups are clamoring for the agencies to complete their efforts to develop a front-of-package nutrition rating system soon, especially since the number of competing symbols is increasing. IOM urges that a single, universal system ultimately take the place of all others to eliminate the clutter and confusion. And one day busy shoppers may be able to zip through store aisles with greater confidence that their choices are the healthiest for their families.   -- Christine Stencel

Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices. Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine (2011, 250 pp.; ISBN 0-309- 21823-3; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $45.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Ellen A. 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. The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences