Friday, November 18, 2011

More Nutritional Rating Systems?

From the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, this report was initially printed in several daily newspapers under the heading "Food Labels Need Energy Star Type Ratings" but the whole report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is available here.

Congress directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to undertake a study with the Institute of Medicine (IOM), with additional support provided by the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, U.S. Department of Agriculture. The task was split into two phases. A first report analyzed the nutrition rating systems and the scientific research that underlies them and was released in 2010. This second report delves into consumer use and understanding of front of package systems.

A variety of nutrition rating systems and symbols are now on the front of food packages—meant to make it easier for consumers to make healthful choices. However, the number and variety of nutrition rating systems in grocery stores today often lead to confusion in the grocery aisle, especially when consumers are pressed for time and may not understand a product rating system.

The report concludes that it is time for a move away from front-of-package (FOP) systems that mostly provide nutrition information on foods or beverages but don’t give clear guidance about their healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information.

The report recommends that the Food and Drug Administration develop, test, and implement a single, standard FOP symbol system to appear on all food and beverage products, in place of other systems already in use. The symbol system should show calories in household servings on all products. Foods and beverages should be evaluated using a point system for saturated and trans fats and sodium, and added sugars. The more points a food or beverage has, the healthier it is. This system would encourage food and beverage producers to develop healthier fare and consumers to quickly and easily find healthier products when they shop.

Federal agencies should develop a new nutrition rating system with symbols to display on the front of food and beverage packaging that graphically convey calorie counts by serving size and a "point" value showing whether the saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars in the products are below threshold levels. This new front-of-package system should apply to all foods and beverages and replace any other symbols currently being used on the front of packaging, added the committee that wrote the report.

The report envisions a rating system in which foods and beverages earn points if their amounts of nutrients of concern -- saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars -- are at or below levels considered acceptable based on qualifying criteria. The more points a food or beverage has, the healthier it is. A product could earn up to three points, one each for having sodium and added sugars that do not exceed threshold amounts and one for having saturated and trans fats below designated levels. For example, 100 percent whole wheat bread could qualify for all three points while graham crackers could earn two points for having levels of sodium and saturated and trans fats below the thresholds. Points would be graphically displayed on packaging as check marks, stars, or some other icon to be determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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