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updated 10/13/2010 3:23:11 PM ET 2010-10-13T19:23:11

A new report suggests manufacturers should cut the clutter on the front of food packages and focus on the nutrients that cause the most health problems: calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

As most consumers can attest, a trip to the grocery store these days includes a confusing blast of messages on food labels. Many companies highlight a food's beneficial ingredients — or lack of an unhealthy ingredient — on the front of the item and leave the bad news for the government-mandated nutrition label on the back.

"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," said Ellen Wartella, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who chaired the committee that prepared the study for the prestigious Institute of Medicine. The study was released Wednesday.

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The committee said calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium are overconsumed and most associated with diet-related health problems in the United States, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers. The panel also said it makes sense to include portion sizes on the front of packages to help consumers understand how much should be eaten.

The panel studied an array of ratings systems used on food packaging — many created by the companies themselves. The symbols are not regulated, though the Food and Drug Administration has warned food manufacturers that the agency will crack down on inaccurate food labeling. Those government standards are not yet developed, however, and it is unclear when they will be.

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The panel said these mixed messages on the front of food items are confusing consumers and noted that questions have been raised about the science behind them.

The Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academies, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters, looked at the labels as part of a larger study for the Centers for Disease Control. The committee will make stronger recommendations in a future report on the issue and assess whether the FDA should have a standardized system for the front of food packages.

The panel said that given limited space on the package fronts, it isn't necessary for ratings systems to focus on other measurements of cholesterol, fiber, added sugars or vitamins. Some nutrition experts have said that added sugars should be listed on the front of package, but the committee said that highlighting calories addresses that concern.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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