Many of the processed foods we eat are "smart," "sensible" and "healthy," according to their package labels. But critics say the meanings of those words aren't always clear, and neither are the criteria used for determining nutritional ratings and symbols.
As part of a government effort to come up with better and more consistent ways to label foods, the Institute of Medicine, an independent non-profit advisory organization, took a closer look at the food ratings and symbols manufacturers, supermarkets, health organizations and government agencies use. In their report, an IOM committee of nutrition experts analyzed the science behind the dozen or so different labeling systems and made recommendations on how front-of-package labels should be changed.
"Over a dozen systems have been developed over the years, so this was no small task, but in light of the potential public health benefit that could be achieved with front-of-package nutrition rating systems, it was a worthy one," the committee wrote in the report.
"The report is once again encouraging labeling as a tool to help the consumer simplify what is in the product and decide if it's a healthy product or not," said Keri Gans, nutrition consultant and past president of the New York State Dietetic Association.
Labels on the front of packages should clearly include information on calories, serving size, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium, the committee concluded. They did not recommend adding information on sugar, carbohydrates, cholesterol, total fat, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals other than sodium.
"[O]ther tools (e.g., nutrient content claims, education programs) may be more appropriate for addressing these nutrients, allowing FOP [front-of-package] systems to focus on the most critical public health concern," the report says.
The labels should also be directed at the general public, saying that approach is the best way to start addressing the obesity epidemic in the U.S.
Other nutrition experts, who had no connection to the report, said these package labels and symbols are generally truthful and can be helpful, but don't come close to providing all the information consumers need to decide whether a food is really healthful.
When you see part of a picture, there leaves a lot left to the imagination, and the consumer can end up making the wrong choices," said Gans.
As an example, Gans pointed to the whole grain stamp symbol.
[The food] does have 'x' amounts of whole grain, so it's very beneficial to see that, but it doesn't show the rest of the picture – it may have a lot of added calories and fat," she said.
"If a product says it has 300 milligrams of sodium, what does a consumer do with that? You shouldn't have to be a nutritionist to decide if that's healthy," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
But Gans said that despite their incompleteness, the front-of-package labels are a great effort.
"These food companies should be commended because they are trying," she said.
Another problem that nutritionists note with labels on the front of food packages is that because there are more than a dozen of them in use, consumers can get very confused.