Institute of Medicine Says Food Labels Should Highlight Over-Consumed Nutrients

October 19, 2010

The Institute of Medicine (IOM; Washington, DC) has completed the first phase of a report on how consumers understand the various messages used on food and beverage packages.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM; Washington, DC) has completed the first phase of a report on how consumers understand the various messages used on food and beverage packages.

While the nutrition labels on the backs of product packages are mostly standardized, symbols and messages meant to convey specific health benefits on the fronts of packages can be unclear, if not misleading, noted the IOM committee.

Rather than allowing products to run approval labels from health councils or establish other forms of meeting nutrient criteria, the IOM committee is calling for a universal system of front-of-package labeling that would indicate amounts of just four nutrients: calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.

The committee found “insufficient evidence to support the inclusion of information about a number of other nutrients,” but felt that these four nutrients posed the strongest relationships, if overconsumed, to diet-related health conditions like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes.

"Calories, saturated fat, trans fats, and sodium present the most serious diet-related risks to people's health, and many Americans consume far too much of these nutrients," said committee chair Ellen Wartella, director of the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University.  "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."

In the second phase of the IOM report-expected to be completed sometime next year- the committee will further review how consumers understand and use various nutritional information. Ways in which a new universal labeling system can be implemented will also be considered.

The report was called for by the U.S. Congress and sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A report brief can be downloaded here.