The battle over front-of-package real estate continues as an Institute of Medicine committee recommends a label system that’s simple and consistent.

Government regulatory agencies want labels that help consumers make healthy choices. Food manufacturers want to help consumers be healthy, but many have set up systems using their own criteria for what is healthy. These can often be different.

Remember the “Smart Choices” labeling in 2009? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pulled that campaign, designed to steer consumers to supposedly nutritional products, after it started showing up on boxes of sugar-loaded cereal.
In response, Congress requested that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Institute of Medicine (IOM) conduct a study to look at front-of-package nutrition labeling. There were two phases to the study.

Phase one concluded that a rating system — based on a product’s calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium content — would benefit consumers. Food manufacturers responded immediately.

“Different companies have jumped in and sort of leap-frogged over the government,” says Ellen Schuster, a University of Missouri Extension associate state human environmental sciences specialist. “Food companies have been coming up with all these different systems, but they’re not consistent and, as you might imagine, they’re setting up their own criteria.”

Phase two of the study added sugar to the list and recommended a rating system similar to the Energy Star® program for appliances. The IOM committee suggested that a product’s calories, in common cooking measurements, should figure prominently on the label. The group also recommended eliminating all other labeling systems in favor of one standard system.

“Using a rating system, food would get zero to three stars, based on analysis of nutrients that are most tied to disease, like the fats, calories, the sugar and the sodium,” Schuster says. “It’s not going to give you complete information, but it can give you some basis to guide you to make a choice and to compare foods.”

This two-year study is only the beginning of a process.

The FDA will need to decide if they’ll act on those recommendations.

“Once they get ready to be very specific about the criteria, then it goes to the Federal Register for a public comment period,” Schuster adds. “It’s an opportunity for everybody to say, ‘Hey, you know, there’s a flaw in what you’ve come up with,’ or ‘I have a better idea’, or ‘Have you thought of this?’”

If finalized, implementation by food manufacturers will also take time.

“There is a long lag time for manufacturers to get information on their labels, because they have to analyze all their products to see how they conform to the criteria and then put the new labeling system on food packages,” Schuster says.

If adopted, the front-of-package labels will be voluntary. That means companies can decide to opt out, but if they do they can’t use a different label system.

Now, however, everything is speculative. It could be years before any standard system shows up on food labels, if it ever does.

Read more about the IOM study at:

Source: University of Missouri