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National Academies Urge Single, Simple Food Rating System

Feet on bathroom scale (Genome.gov)

(Genome.gov)

A study by the National Academy of Sciences recommends federal agencies develop an easy-to-understand point system that rates the nutritional value of packaged food and beverages. The point system, says the study authors, should reflect a single numerical rating that reflects calorie counts with saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Ellen Wartella, professor of human development at Northwestern University, chaired the panel that conducted the study and authored the paper.

The report authors urge a shift in food labeling strategy, to move away from systems that mostly provide nutrition information without clear guidance about healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier food choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information.

The proposed rating system, reflecting this change in strategy,  would award points to foods and beverages  if their amounts of substances to avoid — saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars — are at or below levels considered acceptable based on qualifying criteria.  The more points a food or beverage has, the healthier it is. Points would be graphically displayed on packaging as check marks, stars, or some other icon to be determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

A product could earn a maximum of three points:

  • One point for having sodium content at or below designated amounts,
  • One point for added sugars that do not exceed threshold amounts, and
  • One point for having saturated and trans fats below designated levels.

For example, 100 percent whole wheat bread could qualify for all three points. Graham crackers, which have added sugar, could earn two points for having levels of sodium and saturated and trans fats below the thresholds.

The report recommends that foods and beverages first pass a qualifying set of criteria to determine if they are eligible to earn points at all. If a product exceeds the eligibility criteria for any one of the nutrients of concern, it would not be able to display any points on its label.  For example, a sugar-sweetened soda could not earn points for having low sodium and no saturated or trans fats because its added sugar content is already too high.

The authors recommend as well that foods or beverages should prominently display the amount of calories per serving with servings described in familiar measurements — such as per slice or per cup — whether or not the product qualifies for points.  The icons displaying the calories and points (where they apply) on the front of the package, should also direct shoppers to a nutrition-facts panel on the back for more information about the health value of products.

Read more: Research-Based Healthy Eating Plate Unveiled

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