Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Washington -- In an effort to contain epidemic obesity, the Institute of Medicine on Thursday recommended a new logo for the front of all packaged food sold in grocery stores that would give consumers a quick assessment of its nutrition value, similar to the Energy Star rating on appliances.
The report, two years in the making, calls for a "fundamental shift in strategy" on food packaging that would go beyond providing nutrition information to actually encouraging people to eat better.
"People are so busy and there are so many products to choose from. If there is a system that could very quickly, almost instantly, identify which foods are healthier in terms of reducing chronic disease risk for children and adults, it could really help," said Mary Story, a public health professor at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Institute of Medicine panel.
The label would be on the front of the package or, for produce, on shelf tags. It would consist of stars or some other simple symbol with a zero-to-3 rating. The nutrition information panel now required on the back of all food packaging would remain in place.
Scientists presenting the report said they hope that a simple, concise and consistent symbol for packaged food would provide a powerful motivation for food manufacturers to reformulate their products to gain a higher rating.
Such a label could force food companies to slap a "zero" on foods that are high in added sugars, saturated and trans fats, and sodium, telling consumers that the food is unhealthy.
"It's up to the companies to make products that are healthy," said Juliet Sims, a registered dietitian at the Prevention Institute in Oakland, who applauded the recommendations. "That's what they say they want to do, that's what we want them to do, and this is a way to hold everyone to that."
The Institute of Medicine is an arm of the National Academies, a collection of scholars chartered by Congress to give scientific advice to the public. Congress ordered the study in 2009.
The recommendations now go to the Food and Drug Administration, which must decide whether to issue regulations that would require the new label on all foods sold in grocery stores.
FDA spokeswoman Tamara Ward said the agency "agrees consumers can benefit from a front-of-pack labeling system," adding that the report "reveals some of the complexities of achieving this goal and, along with other data and analysis, will inform FDA's continuing assessment of possible approaches."
Another FDA official, speaking on background, said the agency would "not speculate on a timeline," and that there are "lots of good recommendations in this report, but we need to take the time to examine them to determine our next steps."
The agency would likely need cooperation from the food industry on any new labels or risk free-speech challenges in court.
A welter of nutrition information on food packaging has confused consumers, said the panel's chairwoman, Ellen Wartella, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. The panel concluded that people are getting fatter even as they get more nutrition information.
An obese country
Two-thirds of U.S. adults and a third of children are overweight or obese. Excess weight is a key factor in many chronic problems such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, a key motivation behind the proposed new label.
A study by the Prevention Institute in January found that 84 percent of foods marketed to children had front-of-the package labels that failed to describe basic nutritional criteria for fat, sodium, sugar or fiber, Sims said.
But Scott Faber, head of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said food companies are already heeding the call of first lady Michelle Obama to add basic facts on calories, saturated and trans fats, sugar and sodium to the front of their packages. Called Facts Up Front, that program is "road-tested and ready to roll," Faber said.
The industry label is already on some food packages and will be added to more over the next two years.
Faber said manufacturers surveyed more than 7,000 consumers and found that they do want clearer nutrition information. "They've also told us they do not want summary symbols, stars, checks or numbers that make decisions for them," Faber said. "Consumers tell us they want to be trusted to make these choices and don't want to be told which foods they should and should not eat."
The latest labeling efforts follow a debacle the food industry suffered in 2009 with its voluntary "smart choices" label. It soon became infamous as the Froot Loops label because it allowed sugar-laden cereals and Cracker Jack to be called nutritious. Using a series of check marks, the label became a marketing device whose chief value was to tell people which potato chips or cookies were less unhealthy than others. The program was ended in 2010 after the FDA complained.
Panel members said the proposed label would avoid these problems.
The new logo would incorporate added sugars, saturated and trans fats, and sodium, so a food high in any of those ingredients would have difficulty getting the top 3 rating - such as potato chips that have reduced fat but high amounts of salt.