It’s time for serious health saboteurs sodium, saturated fat, trans fat and calories to take center stage on food labels, according to a recent Institute of Medicine report. A panel backed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that displaying this specific health info in an easy-to-find format can help consumers choose healthier food products and thereby lessen their risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The IOM committee examined 20 current front-of-package labeling systems and symbols, none of which are FDA-regulated. Although each was created to help consumers choose healthy options, the sheer number and variety of systems ultimately confuses shoppers, the panel found.

Kimberly Lord Stewart, industry analyst and author of Eating Between the Lines: The Supermarket Shopper’s Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), agrees: “Our current food-labeling system is not very user friendly for the average consumer," she said.

The committee also advised listing calorie and serving-size information prominently and in terms customers can clearly understand; for instance, a box should read “100 calories per package” rather than “100 calories per X number of grams or ounces.” As it stands now, "it is difficult for shoppers to translate metrics into measurements they can relate to," Stewart said. "Not many people can visualize in their mind, much less on their plate, what 100 grams of a particular food looks like.”

Would a universal, FDA-mandated system pose any problems for food manufacturers and retailers? “As with any labeling change, manufactures will have the added expense of reformulating, reprinting and changing marketing claims,” Stewart said. “But if the product is truly healthy, displaying useful and easily understood health and nutrition information could actually improve sales for manufacturers and retailers that support healthy eating.”