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Panel Proposes Nutrition Labels That Reach For The Stars

The Institute of Medicine sympathizes with us consumers and the confusion we suffer weighing health claims on food packaging at the grocery store. Our convoluted food labels might have something to do with why so many Americans aren't eating as healthfully as they could, and are shouldering too much weight and diet-related health problems, the IOM says.

And so the IOM today has proposed a new system for labeling the front package of foods, one that could potentially make it much easier to compare products like milk or cereal using three key criteria: saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. The system would rate foods and beverages and give them up to 3 points based on the quantities of these key nutrients they contained. Three points would equal a thumbs up, meaning that sodium, added sugars and saturated and trans fats all fell below threshold levels.

The report is a follow up to earlier IOM findings which determined that calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium are the biggest culprits in our food that cause disease.

In an effort to avoid a detailed and sometimes mystifying breakdown of nutrients and ingredients like what's already in the Nutrition Facts, the new system would display the points graphically as check marks, stars or some other icon to be determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In this sense, it wouldn't be too different from the Energy Star program, which helps guide consumers to the most energy-efficient electronics.

But will this system actually work, or even have a chance at implementation? Some experts who weren't involved with crafting it are supportive of the idea, but aren't too sure how it will fly with food manufacturers if it were required of them.

"This idea might be better than what we already have, but it has to really stand out" and shouldn't get lost amid the visual clutter already found on packaged foods, Myrtle McCulloch tells The Salt. "Otherwise, it will get lost," says McCulloch, who teaches at Georgetown University's School of Nursing and Health Studies.

Companies will presumably have to make major changes to their labels and figure out where to put this new information. Back in June, the food industry proposed a simple, front-of-package label called Nutrition Keys. But health experts said that wasn't going to cut it. "If left to its own devices, it's pretty apparent that the industry will not come up with a system that works for consumers and will help guide healthy food choices," said Kelly Brownell, who heads the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.

McCulloch is also concerned about who's going to pay for the food manufacturers to change their labels to fit the IOM plan. "Sometimes the food in the box costs less than the advertising, so the cost for a program like this is almost certainly going to be passed on to the consumer," she says.

The FDA has long been at work to change the food-labeling system to make it more user-friendly, and it has promised to crack down on inaccurate labeling that has confused consumers.

But just how much do labels affect what foods people buy? The IOM says some studies show that people who read the labels do eat much more healthfully than people who don't. But there are also studies that have found the opposite to be true.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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