WASHINGTON – In a letter to industry on Oct. 20, the Food and Drug Administration outlined its guidance on the plethora of front-of-package symbols and nutrition scores being used by food processors and retailers to communicate the nutritional quality of foods and beverages. Noting that the F.D.A.’s research shows that with the front-of-package labeling consumers are less likely to check the Nutrition Facts panel, the agency said it is "essential both the criteria and symbols used in the front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound, well-designed and helps consumers make informed, healthy food choices."

"Some are questioning whether they (front-of-package symbols) are marketing or health-oriented," said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the F.D.A.

The agency is analyzing front-of-package labels that appear to be misleading and also is looking for symbols that may be considered nutrient content claims.

To ensure consumers are not confused or misled by front-of-package symbols, the F.D.A. said it is developing a proposed regulation to define the nutritional criteria that would have to be met by food companies making front-of-package claims about a product’s nutritional quality.

"We want to work with the food industry – retailers and manufacturers alike – as well as nutrition and design experts, and the Institute of Medicine, to develop an optimal, common approach to nutrition-related F.O.P. and shelf labeling that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve their health," the agency said in the guidance letter.

Citing recent news stories about the Smart Choices front-of-package labeling program as a reason for the new initiative, the F.D.A. pointed to the traffic-light system used in the United Kingdom as a positive example of a voluntary program that provides consumers with easy-to-understand nutrition information that is based on common criteria.

"The U.K. system is the program that is the most talked about and the deepest as far as available information," said Ms. Hamburg.

She added the F.D.A. is launching a consumer research program to assess how the front-of-package symbols are being used by consumers and how they are being perceived.