In recent years, many consumers have been confused by the wild and ill-coordinated array of front-of-package (FOP) food labeling efforts: Smart Choices, Smart Spot, NuVal scores, Guiding Stars, Heart Check, and so forth.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) in October released its Phase I report on front-of-pack labeling options. This report is available for free download on the website of the National Academies Press (requires brief registration of email address).
The report is politely worded, but it essentially seeks to rein in some of the excesses. In place of complex multi-nutrient schemes, the report recommends emphasizing just a few key nutrition components for which the research base is most solid and the connection to major chronic diseases is strongest: calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. I was a little surprised that added sugars failed to make the list, but the report authors had some practical concerns about how sugars are measured, and they felt that listing calories addressed much of the concern about sugars.
The report seemed unfavorably disposed toward algorithm-based systems (discussed previously on U.S. Food Policy), especially if the algorithm is proprietary or complex and not all the details are shared.
Perhaps the most damning section of the report is an illustrative comparison of how the various systems rated the same set of products. For example, the IOM report compared six grain products: regular oatmeal, instant oatmeal, unsweetened toasted oat cereal, sweetened toasted oat cereal, crisped rice cereal, and an apple cinnamon cereal bar. These foods reflect the options that a grocery shopper really might face on a supermarket shelf, choosing the family's breakfast supplies for the next week. All six products would win the Smart Choices and Heart Check standards, which seem fairly permissive. NuVal would give a higher score to regular oatmeal and a lower score to instant oatmeal, while the Nutrient Rich Foods Index and Guiding Stars would do just the opposite. Sensible Solutions would favor only the two oatmeal products plus unsweetened toasted oat cereal (not the sweet cereal and cinnamon cereal bar). Taken as a whole, the comparison makes the current status quo in the grocery store aisle look like a big confusing mess.
A future report from the same committee will investigate what consumers actually understand.