US Institute of Medicine calls for food labelling

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 14th October 2010

Mother shopping with childA leading US health body, the Institute of Medicine, yesterday called for front-of-pack labelling focussing on saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and total caloric information.A report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) said the four nutrient elements were routinely overconsumed and associated most strongly with diet-related health problems such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

“Calories, saturated fat, trans fats, and sodium present the most serious diet-related risks to people’s health, and many Americans consume far too much of these nutrients,” said Professor Ellen Wartella, chair of the research committee. “As Americans grapple with increasing rates of serious health problems connected to their diets, it’s important that the nutritional information they receive is clear, consistent, and well-grounded in nutrition science.”

Given limited space on the front of packaging and the additional information that is available on the back nutrition panel, the researchers concluded that it would not be crucial for front-of-pack rating systems and symbols to include other components, such as cholesterol, fibre, added sugars or vitamins.

Concerned about the variety of messages and symbols on food packaging in the US and about the inconsistency of how the nutritional characteristics of products are rated, the US Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned the IOM to undertake the review.

The researchers were commissioned to identify labels being used by manufacturers, retailers and by governments, consider the purpose and overall merits of icons, identify criteria underlying the systems and evaluate their scientific basis.

The IOM’s findings are likely to concern some consumer groups which have called for nutrition rating systems also to cover added sugars.

The public interest campaign group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said that added sugars should also be included on front-of-package labels for at least some foods.

“Unfortunately, without disclosing the amount of added sugars, a soft drink with that labelling would look pretty good because it has no fat and virtually no sodium,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “One solution would be to disclose calories and just one or two other nutrients, depending on the type of food. Soups, for instance, might focus on calories and sodium. Soda labels should highlight just calories and sugar.”

However, the researchers said that both added and naturally occurring sugars contribute to the caloric content of foods and to overconsumption of high-calorie products, and highlighting total calories per serving in nutrition rating systems would address this concern.

CSPI also said that rather than highlighting trans fat on front of pack, the FDA should simply ban the artificial variety of trans fat which comes from partially hydrogenated oil.

The second phase of the IOM’s research will focus on how consumers understand and use different types of nutritional information. The next phase will also include the researchers’ assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of having a single, standardised front-of pack system regulated by the FDA.

just-food is the world’s leading portal for the global pre-packaged food and retail industries. Its daily mix of breaking news, views, analysis and research serves over 100,000 food executives each month.