Front-of-pack labels should highlight harmful nutrients, says IOM

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition Iom

Front-of-pack labeling systems would be most useful to consumers if they focused on calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium, according to initial findings of an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its intention to scrutinize front-of-pack nutrition claims last year amid concerns that they could confuse the public about nutrition information. There is a proliferation of front-of-pack labeling schemes in the United States, some endorsed by health organizations, and others with criteria devised by organizations like the Whole Grains Council, or by companies themselves. However none of the front-of-pack symbols is regulated by the FDA.

The IOM panel, backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA, examined 20 front-of-pack (FOP) and on-shelf labeling programs in use in the United States and around the world.

It said that if FOP schemes are to be used to help consumers make healthy choices, it is important to note that the most common American health concerns linked to diet are obesity, heart disease, type-2 diabetes and certain cancers.

Committee chair and Northwestern University professor Ellen Wartella said: "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. 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."

The panel also said it makes sense to include portion sizes front-of-pack in order to make it clear to consumers how much they should consume.

Although monitoring other nutrients – such as total fat, vitamins, fiber, minerals, protein and added sugars – is important for a healthy diet, the panel found insufficient evidence that including such information​front-of-pack would be useful to consumers looking to make the most nutritious food choices.

The IOM report also highlighted that nutrient criteria can vary widely and sometimes conflict between the different FOP and on-shelf systems in use.

Phase II of the IOM committee’s report is due to be published next fall, and will focus on consumer understanding of nutrition labels. It is also expected to weigh the pros and cons of having a single, standardized nutrition labeling system.

The phase I report brief is available online here​.

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