Report: Nutrition Labels Need to Be Standardized

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"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.

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