Federal agencies should develop a nutrition rating system with symbols that readily display calorie counts and info on fats, sodium, and sugars, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which wants a front-of-package system that’s simple and standardized.
“Our report offers a path to develop an Energy Star equivalent for foods and beverages,” says committee chair Ellen Wartella of Northwestern University. The system “would enable shoppers to instantly recognize healthier products by their number of points and calorie information.”
Specifically, the system should:
- Detail calorie counts by serving size, and a serving would be something familiar like a slice, cup, or bar.
- And have a point value showing if the saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars in the products are below threshold levels – “the components of diet most closely linked to chronic-disease risk,” describes IOM vice-chair Alice Lichtenstein of Tufts University.
Americans spend about $147 billion a year on obesity-related health costs, Bloomberg reports, with the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs covering 42%.
The government Energy Star program has been rating the energy efficiency of appliances for 19 years. And consumers don’t have to know anything about kilowatt hours or any other scientific specification, says IOM panelist Matthew Kreuter of Washington University.
So, the more points (or checks or stars), the healthier.
“You shouldn’t have to be a nutrition scientist to make healthy food choices for your family,” Kreuter says. “American shoppers are in a hurry. They don’t have time to read a bunch of abbreviations and percentages on every food package.”
A product could earn between 0 and 3 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% whole wheat bread could get all 3, while graham crackers get 2 points for having levels of sodium and fats below the thresholds.
The food and beverage industry argued that consumers do not want the government to interpret information for them. In January, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute launched their Facts Up Front, which gives information on calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars but doesn’t rate foods according to those components, Wall Street Journal explains.
Image: sample developed by Washington University