U.S. Panel Urges ‘Energy Star’ Nutrition Ratings for Food Labels

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Institute of Medicine

The Institute of Medicine suggested possible designs for a point-based food-labeling system, in which products with low levels of sugars, fats and sodium get more points.

Taking a cue from the Energy Star ratings on the front of household appliances, a panel of experts is recommending that a similarly easy-to-read system appear on every packaged food item in American grocery stores so busy consumers can glean nutritional info at a glance.

The recommendation comes from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which was commissioned by Congress to study the issue over the past two years. The panel found that the dizzying variety of front-of-pack labels currently out there — grocery stores, food manufacturers and even health organizations like the American Heart Association put their own stamps on various foods — was leading to more consumer confusion than healthy choices.

Part of the problem is that food manufacturers like to tout their products’ pluses (high in vitamin A) on the front of the box, without acknowledging their minuses (high in fat).

The IOM reviewed front-of-package labeling systems in the U.S. and abroad (here‘s a good rundown of labels) and found that, in terms of clarity for the consumer, no system was better than the next. So the panel proposed a standard label for all products that would show how many calories per serving the food item contains, along with a three-point system (checkmarks or stars) that would indicate whether the product contains acceptable levels of sodium, added sugars and trans fats or saturated fats.

Items would get a point each for having low enough levels of each of the three nutrients “of concern” — which the panel chose for being most closely associated with health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease — for a maximum of three points. If a product has a superhigh amount of any of the nutrients, rendering it unhealthy overall, it would receive no points. So sugary soda, for example, would get zero points for having high added sugar, even though it is low in fats and sodium.

Whole wheat bread would get three points, while graham crackers would get two (low levels of fats and sodium, but high in added sugar), and soup crackers would get zero. The hope is that the point system will not only help consumers cut through the culinary clutter and make fast, smart decisions, but also inspire grocers to encourage the sales of high-point foods and encourage manufacturers to reformulate their foods in pursuit of points.

During a meeting with media on Thursday, Ellen Wartella, the chair of the IOM panel and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, explained that the system was meant to be interpretive more than informational. So, even shoppers with no nutritional knowledge and those who are too rushed to analyze the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the box can still identify healthy products in a split-second effort. It’s the difference between “This has 100 grams of saturated fat” and “Eating this is not going to do you any favors.”

The panel explained that a front-of-pack label that focuses on best-to-avoid nutrients, rather than those that should be encouraged like, say, fiber and potassium, is a reflection of public need. Americans are eating too much fat, sugar and sodium, and at a time when two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese and many are battling diet-related health problems like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, the government’s most important role should be in guiding people away from unhealthy foods, the panel advised. (Certainly a far cry from the World War II days, when the government recommended that the underfed population consider butter its own food group.)

The IOM’s point system leads to some awkward ratings, however. A Diet Coke, for example, would get three points for having low levels of fats, added sugars and sodium. Meanwhile, 1% milk would get only two points, due to its fat content. But with that fat, of course, come good nutrients that an empty diet soda doesn’t provide.

The process is still in its early stages. It’s unclear whether federal regulators will adopt the new labels or whether they will be mandatory — though the project would make more sense if they were. Part of the justification for recommending a single, uniform system is that all products will be easily comparable. And allowing it to be voluntary would potentially remove many points of comparison.

For its part, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry group that represents food makers, said it would go ahead with its own voluntary system of package-front labeling called Facts Up Front. That system lists calories, fat, sodium and sugar, as well as beneficial nutrients like fiber. It gives information, but doesn’t rate products. “We believe the most effective programs are those that trust consumers and not ones that tell consumers what they should and should not eat,” Scott Faber, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told the AP.

The next step is for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to decide whether or how to implement the panel’s recommendation. The FDA is keen to overhaul front-of-package labeling, but the agency is continuing to study the matter.

Good promotion, the IOM panel noted, would also be key to any program’s success. And the proposed three-point system would be an easy sell to consumers. All they need to understand is that “three is better than two, and two is better than one,” said Matt Kreuter, a professor of social work and medicine at Washington University and a member of the panel. “And the more points it has, the healthier it is.”

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.