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.
Front-of-Package Label Information Incomplete, Say Experts
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.
"When you have too many indicators, what's a consumer to do?" asked Ayoob. "Confusion on the part of consumers gets us nowhere. Consumers want something that's credible, usable and easy to understand."
A much better option is to rely on the contents of a different part of the package.
"The best thing to do is turn the package over and read the nutrition facts," said Gans.
"There's much more accurate information and there's also an ingredient list below it," said Karen Ansel, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She also said another advantage of the nutrition facts panel is that it's regulated by the government, unlike the food labeling systems.
In part becasue of the lack of regulation, the IOM committee also suggested there should be a standardized system for labeling.
"That's why the IOM is looking at them -- it's easy to be misled," said Ansel.
"It's crucial that all foods be scored on the same scale," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center in Derby, Conn.. Katz is also the chief science officer at NuVal, a company who manufactured one of the labeling systems included in the report.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that represents hundreds of food manufacturers, previously testified before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that symbols on food packages offer consumers factual information and are voluntarily placed on products. Because of that, the association doesn't think any federal regulation is necessary.
"[We believe] that the FDA policies and guidance around nutrition communication on labels and in labeling are very clear, and are being followed by the industry."
The IOM committee report also offers six different system options that fall into two categories: nutrient-specific and summary indicators. Nutrient-specific labels include information about certain nutrients that are in the food, such as the whole grain stamp. Summary indicators, such as the American Heart Association check mark, tell consumers that a food meets certain criteria for specific ingredients.
Whether consumers are able to use the information on package labels remains to be seen, the committee says. They plan to analyze consumer use and understanding of the labels in the next phase of their research. They expect that report to be published in the fall of next year.