IOM Charts Narrow Course for FOP Labeling

October 21, 2010

By Ricardo Carvajal

The Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols (part of the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies) recently released a report on the first phase of its study of front-of-package ("FOP") nutrition rating systems and symbols.  In the first phase of its Congressionally mandated study, the Committee analyzed existing FOP systems.  In the second phase due to be completed in 2011, the Committee will focus on consumer understanding and use of FOP systems. 

The Committee’s report analyzes 20 of the many FOP systems currently used in the U.S. and abroad, and places them into three categories: (1) Nutrient-Specific Systems (those that display “the amount per serving of select nutrients from the Nutrition Facts panel or use symbols based on claim criteria”); (2) Summary Indicator Systems (those that “use a single symbol, icon, or score to provide summary information about the nutrient content of a product”); and (3) Food Group Information Systems (those that “use symbols that are awarded to a food product based on the presence of a food group or food ingredient”).  The report analyzes the different systems’ respective strengths and limitations, and provides examples of how different systems can yield different results for the same types of foods – an observation that is certain to be cited in support of any future proposal to create a single standardized system.  The report also declines to identify any options for setting criteria for certain types of systems (i.e., Summary Indicator Systems based on algorithms, and Food Group Information Systems), thereby suggesting that those systems are unlikely to form the basis for any future proposal for a single standardized system.

Of particular concern to industry, the report identifies calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium as the most important nutrients to include in an FOP system, on the ground that these nutrients “are most strongly associated with the diet-related health risks affecting the greatest number of Americans.”  At the same time, the report questions the utility of including nutrients that industry has sought to highlight in some FOP systems, such as vitamins and minerals, in part based on “concerns about encouraging overfortification or the addition of these nutrients to food systems in which the nutrient is unstable or not biologically available.”  The report also questions the utility of including fiber, in part based on concerns that “fortification may also encourage consumers to eat foods that have had fiber added rather than increasing their consumption of naturally-occurring, plant-based foods that are high in dietary fiber, as recommended by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.” 

Consumers have shown increasing interest in nutrition and health information generally, and food marketers have responded by crafting FOP systems to help convey that information in a way that differentiates their products in a crowded marketplace.  In light of these trends, the course charted by the Committee could well run through rough seas.

Categories: Foods