Food Industry Marketing Challenged By Initial Report of the Institute of Medicine

Information on the fronts of food packaging would be most useful to shoppers if they highlighted four nutrients of greatest concern – calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium – says a new report from the Institute of Medicine.  These food components are routinely overconsumed and associated most strongly with diet-related health problems affecting many Americans, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.  Of course, if Americans chose to eat primarily unaltered foods, raised organically by local growers and producers, and prepared without added sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, as encouraged by this website, diet-related health problems, with little doubt, would rapidly decrease in America.  Nonetheless, the reality is that processed, packaged food finds its way into nearly all American diets, and the avoidance of confusion from claims by marketers of the “healthfulness” of their products, the intention behind this new report from the prestigious Institute of Medicine, is a praiseworthy goal.

Given the limited space on package fronts and the information already available in the Nutrition Facts panel on the backs of all products, it would not be crucial, according to the Institute of Medicine’s report, for the fronts of food packaging to focus on other components, such as cholesterol, fiber, added sugars, or vitamins.  Some organizations and nutrition experts have called for nutrition rating systems to also focus on the sugars added to some products during manufacturing.  The committee concurred that both added and naturally occurring sugars contribute to the caloric content of foods and beverages and overconsumption of high-calorie products can lead to obesity, but that highlighting calories per serving in the Nutrition Facts panel would address this concern.

According to the Institute’s report, a multitude of nutrition rating, or guidance, systems have been developed by food manufacturers, government agencies, nutrition groups, and others in recent years with the intent of helping consumers compare products’ nutritional attributes and make healthier choices.  Ratings are typically communicated to shoppers through symbols placed prominently on food packaging, usually on the front, or on retail shelf tags.  Unlike the Nutrition Facts panel, these rating systems and symbols are unregulated, and different systems focus on different nutrients.  The variation may confuse consumers, and questions have been raised about the systems’ underlying nutritional criteria.

Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and vice chairwoman of the committee of the Institute of Medicine that prepared the report, summed up the committee’s intentions in a report in the New York Times (“Group Seeks Food Labels Spelling Out A Downside,” William Neuman, October 14, 2010)  as follows: “What we’re suggesting is that food products be labeled in a consistent way with information that will help the general public decrease their risk for chronic diseases and this is the type of information that is unlikely to currently appear on the front of the package.”

The committee will next review research on how consumers understand and use different types of nutritional information.  It  will issue a second report recommending ways to optimize the usefulness of front-of-package nutrition rating systems and symbols and will also include an assessment of the pros and cons of having “a single, standardized front-label food guidance system” that is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The report was sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  Established in 1970 under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine provides independent, objective, evidence-based advice to policymakers, health professionals, the private sector, and the public.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies (FWB 10/23/10).

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