Instant Guide

Do unhealthy foods need warning labels?

The Institute of Medicine is urging the FDA to adopt an Energy Star-style nutrition system for food, providing at-a-glance ratings for fat, sodium, and added sugar

To help consumers deal with information overload, the Institute of Medicine is urging the FDA to demand concise nutrition information on the front of grocery items. The labels would be similar to the Energy Star system used for appliances. "We want a really simple system that says if you have three marks, the product is healthier than one with two marks," says Northwestern University psychology professor Ellen Wartella, chair of the committee that wrote the institute's report. Here's what you should know:

How would an Energy Star-like system work?
The Institute of Medicine wants to post the most important health information up front on food packaging. The snapshot would include calories per serving, serving size, and "stars or some other symbol that quickly shows how the food rates for fat, sodium, and added sugar," says Ryan Jaslow of CBS News. In-depth nutrition information would still be available on the back of packaging, but the quick scan would help consumers pick healthy foods in a hurry. "Americans are busy shoppers," says Wartella.

Why the big push now?
The U.S. obesity rate has doubled since 1980 to 72 million people, according to the CDC, and Americans spend $147 billion a year on related healthcare. One way the labels could help is by helping people change their diets, cutting down on junk and picking foods with the nutrition their bodies need. It will also make the food labels on every box of cereal and can of soup uniform, removing guess work from the hunt for healthy foods. A standardized rating system could apply to all foods and beverages, replacing existing systems such as the Facts up Front program, which is voluntary.

What happens next?
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 companies including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, and Kraft Foods, isn't sold on "the untested, interpretive approach suggested by the IOM committee," says Molly Peterson of Bloomberg. Yet, an FDA spokesperson says the organization "agrees [that] consumers can benefit from a front-of-pack labeling system." As committee member Matthew Kreuter puts it, consumers wouldn't need "a great deal of literacy" to understand the proposed program — just "that three is better than two, two is better than one, one is better than zero."

Sources: BloombergCBS News, MSNBC

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