Report at a Glance
Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices
Over the past ten years, a variety of nutrition symbols and ratings systems have found their way to the front of food packaging—all aimed at providing consumers with information about the nutritional value and overall healthfulness of the product inside. Although their purpose is to simplify the choices for consumers, making it easier for people to make healthful selections, these “frontof- package” (FOP) labels may result in more confusion among purchasers.
In light of the persistent disconnect between dietary recommendations and Americans’ actual diets, Congress directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to undertake a study with the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) later joined as sponsors. The IOM appointed a committee to the task, which was split into two phases: 1) to analyze current nutrition rating systems and the scientific research that underlies them, which took place in Phase I, and 2) to outline the benefits of a single, simple food guidance system on the front of packages that best promotes health and will be useful to consumers—the subject of this report.
The committee concludes that it is time for a fundamental shift in strategy, 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. An FOP system should be standardized and it also should motivate food and beverage companies to reformulate their products to be healthier and encourage food retailers to prominently display products that meet this standard.
Characteristics of a Model Front-of-Package System
The underlying concept of a model FOP system is similar to that behind the Energy Star® program. This successful government-run labeling system uses a simple symbol to identify equipment and materials that meet certain standards of energy efficiency. The IOM committee found that FOP systems that are simple and easy to understand are more effective at encouraging healthier product choices, particularly when consumer must choose among many types of products.
The committee describes a successful FOP symbol system as:
Simple: not requiring specific or sophisticated nutritional knowledge to understand the meaning
Interpretive: nutrition information provided as guidance rather than as specific facts
Ordinal: offering nutritional guidance by using a scaled or ranking system
Supported by communication: with readily remembered names or identifiable symbols