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Food labels need Energy Star-like ratings, report finds

Just like that Energy Star tag helps you choose your appliances, a new report says a rating symbol on the front of every soup can, cereal box and yogurt container could help hurried shoppers go home with the healthiest foods.
A Walmart employee stocks shelves in a newly opened Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago
Busy shoppers need a simple food label that tells them the most important detail: how many calories per serving, according to a new report.Jim Young / REUTERS
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Just like that Energy Star tag helps you choose your appliances, a new report says a rating symbol on the front of every soup can, cereal box and yogurt container could help hurried shoppers go home with the healthiest foods.

Thursday's report from the influential Institute of Medicine urges the Food and Drug Administration to adopt new food labeling that clears the confusing clutter off today's packages and gives consumers a fast way to compare their choices.

It wouldn't replace the in-depth Nutrition Facts panel that's now on the back or side of food packages. But few shoppers stop to read or heed that fine print in the middle of the grocery aisle.

The new labeling system should show the most important detail for consumers: how many calories per serving, according to the report. It should also use a point system to show whether the amounts of saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars are below certain thresholds, the group said.

"Our report offers a path to develop an Energy Star equivalent for foods and beverages," said Northwestern University psychology professor Ellen Wartella, who chairs the committee that wrote the report. She was referring to the government-run labeling system that lets shoppers easily identify appliances that meet certain standards of energy efficiency.

Government agencies often call on the Institute of Medicine, a Washington-based nonprofit group, to provide guidance before they make changes to regulations.

A unified system should encourage food retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Kroger Co. to prominently display products that meet the standard, the report said. It should also motivate food and beverage makers from Coca-Cola Co. to Kraft Foods Inc. to make their products healthier.

Most food and drink companies have moved in that direction, but critics say they have not gone far enough, given the nation's obesity epidemic.

"American shoppers are busy shoppers," said Wartella. "We want a really simple system that says if you have three marks, that product is healthier than one with two marks."

Given the lack of uniformity on U.S. food labels and the continuing disconnect between nutritional recommendations and Americans' actual diets, Congress asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine existing ratings systems with the Institute and outline the benefits of a single system.

The resulting report said the system should apply to all foods and beverages and replace any other symbols in current use. It should be simple and universally understandable, use a ranking system and interpret nutrition information so that it offers guidance rather than straight facts, the report said.

"It is time for a fundamental shift in strategy," the report said. "A move away from systems that mostly provide nutrition information without clear guidance about its healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier food choices through simplicity, visual clarity and the ability to convey meaning without written information."

Different approaches
U.S. regulators have called for clear and accurate labels on the front of packages to help fight obesity, which is a growing problem for U.S. policymakers.

Children today are likely to have a shorter life span than their parents. This will affect their ability to work and pay taxes, while threatening to drive up health care costs.

The Institute of Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration have been working on guidelines for the type of nutrition information on the front of packages.

But while calorie counts on the front of food packages are "like a trailer for a movie," other nutritional details such as cholesterol, sodium and calcium matter, too.

"This is important for people who wouldn't read the label on the back at all, but it doesn't explain the whole story," Taub-Dix told msnbc.com. "Half the people in the U.S. don't know how many daily calories they need. They don't know what numbers to look for."

In January, several food and drink makers announced their own system, called Facts up Front, ahead of U.S. regulators. The new labels list calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars on the front of packages.

Backers said the industry was responding to a request from first lady Michelle Obama, who has taken on childhood obesity as her signature issue.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group, said the Institute's proposal was "far preferable" to Facts Up Front, since it would use a simple icon with zero to three check marks that would let shoppers know quickly about the healthfulness of a product.

"The industry hopes to preempt more consumer-friendly requirements by the FDA," CSPI Director Michael Jacobson said in a statement. "The industry's complex scheme requires consumers to consider the amounts of calories and four to six nutrients, without any numerical score or useful symbols to convey a food's nutritional value."

For its part, the Grocery Manufacturers Association stood by the Facts Up Front program, saying it was based on consumers' preference for the facts and the freedom to make their own choices.

"The most effective programs are those that consumers embrace, and consumers have said repeatedly that they want to make their own judgments, rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat," said a statement from the association.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says two-thirds of American adults and 15 percent of children are overweight or obese, although in some states the rate for children is above 30 percent.