Food items on sale in the US should carry a uniform set of nutrition labels to enable consumers to buy healthier products, a study has argued.

The Institute of Medicine has urged the Food and Drug Administration to develop a "single, standard front-of-pack symbol system" to appear on all food and drink products.

In a report on nutrition labelling, the Institute recommended that a system should contain a symbol that translated information from the nutrition panel on each product "into a quickly and easily grasped health meaning" to "make healthier options unmistakable".

The Institute's also put forward the idea of the labels containing nutritional "points" for saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars.

US food retailers use a number of different systems to rate the nutritional value of products, including the NuVal scheme used by regional retailers such as Meijer and Guiding Stars, developed by US chains owned by Belgium-based retailer Delhaize.

Manufacturers have devised a system called Facts Up Front, which will be launched early next year. 

However, in its report, the Institute of Medicine said the different systems confused consumers. It said a single system would help consumers "quickly and easily find healthier products" and encourage food and drink makers to produce "healthier fare".

"It is time for a move away from front-of-package systems that mostly provide nutrition information on foods or beverages but don’t give clear guidance about their healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information," the Institute said.

US consumer watchdog the Center for Science in the Public Interest backed the Institute's broad argument. 

"The Institute of Medicine's proposal is eminently sensible and will probably be roundly condemned by food manufacturers," CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said. "A simple icon with 3, 2, 1, or zero check marks would give shoppers at-a-glance information about nutritional booby traps lurking inside packaged foods.

"The IOM's proposal is far preferable to the voluntary Facts Up Front labeling program that the grocery industry is rushing to market. The industry hopes to pre-empt more consumer-friendly requirements by the FDA. The industry's complex scheme requires consumers to consider the amounts of calories and four to six nutrients, without any numerical score or useful symbols to convey a food’s nutritional value."

Jacobson acknowledged the Institute's approach "like all of the systems yet developed still has holes" but said the FDA should look to develop a mandatory system based on the report's advice.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents US food manufacturers and launched the Facts Up Front system, said the Institute had provided a "perspective" to the "national dialogue about front-of-pack nutrition labelling" but said the approach was "untested" and "interpretive".

It added: "In the meantime, food and beverage companies have developed a real-world programme that delivers real value to real consumers in real time."