NEWS 2011

Better Food Labeling for Better Health

Food Label
Example of an FOP label

If a snack has “0 grams of trans fat” written on its label, is it good for you? It might be hard to tell, as nutritional information on food packaging can vary widely from product to product.

A number of different front-of-package (FOP) labeling systems and symbols exist. Yet little evidence has been gathered about which, if any, actually help consumers make healthier food choices—and by extension, could help attenuate the nation’s growing obesity problem.

As chair of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Study Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols, communication studies researcher and IPR associate Ellen Wartella is leading a national effort to review current FOP trends and suggest improvements. The committee, requested by Congress, is joint between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA.

Taking a public health standpoint, committee members began by identifying the FOP information most important to consumers, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of various approaches.

To be most effective, the committee finds, FOP labeling should aim for a broad audience and always prominently display serving size and total calories. Specifically, the labeling should focus on the number of calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium—the nutritional elements most strongly linked to U.S. health concerns—rather than trying to provide a summary health rating or information about food groups.

“But the most important problem,” Wartella said, “is the lack of common nutritional standards across companies.”

Ellen Wartella
Ellen Wartella

In the grocery store, this means that products might appear to be healthier than they really are—for example, a snack that is advertised as “low on sodium” with no mention of its high sugar content.

“It’s quite clear that each company’s nutritional standard is there to meet the particular formulation of the products it’s selling,” explained Wartella, who is Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication.

There has been a call for common standards across the food and beverage industry that would help consumers in identifying healthier foods, Wartella said. The IOM study committee also examined consumer behavior research to best identify how to inform consumers about front-of-package labeling. The report is available on IOM's website.