Those “Nutrition Facts” labels that are plastered on nearly every food package found in grocery stores are getting a new look.
Calories would be in larger, bolder type, and consumers for the first time would know whether foods have added sugars under label changes being proposed by the Obama administration. Serving sizes would be updated to make them more realistic. A serving of ice cream, for example, would double to a full cup, closer to what people actually eat.
“Some professionals argue it might give permission to eat more: ‘I can eat a cup of ice cream instead of a half cup of ice cream,’ but the calories are going to be double now,” said Candi Possinger, a registered dietitian who leads the nutrition program for Catholic Medical Partners in Western New York. “That portion has 500 calories in it, not 250 calories as in the past. That may be a motivator to say, ‘Maybe I won’t have all of that now,’ or ‘Maybe I’ll try something different.’
“I think the changes are good.”
The proposed overhaul comes as science has shifted. While fat was the focus two decades ago when the labels first were created, nutritionists are now more concerned with how many calories we eat. And serving sizes have long been misleading, with many single-serving packages listing multiple servings, so the calorie count is lower.
“The other thing I’m excited for,” Possinger said, “is items that are perceived as a single item – like that juice bottle in the vending machine – there’s going to be dual labels on it: one that’s per serving and one that’s per container, because 99 percent of the time, people are having that container. So people are going to be able to see, this is the calories, the sugar, in the container.”
The idea isn’t that people should eat more; it’s that they should understand how many calories are in what they actually eat. The Food and Drug Administration said that by law, serving sizes must be based on actual consumption, not ideal consumption.
“Our guiding principle here is very simple, that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” said first lady Michelle Obama, who supports the changes as part of her Let’s Move initiative to combat child obesity, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary.
Earlier this month, she announced new Agriculture Department rules that would reduce marketing of unhealthy foods in schools.
The new nutrition labels are likely as far as three years away. The FDA will take comments on the proposal for 90 days, and a final rule could take another year. Once it’s final, the agency has proposed giving industry two years to comply.
The FDA projects food companies will have to pay around $2 billion as they change the labels.
It was still not yet clear what the final labels would look like. The FDA offered two labels in its proposal – one that looks similar to the current version but is shorter and clearer and another that groups the nutrients into a “quick facts” category for things like fat, carbohydrates, sugars and proteins.
There also would be an “avoid too much” category for saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars; and a “get enough” section with vitamin D, potassium, calcium, iron and fiber. Potassium and vitamin D are new additions, based on current thinking that Americans aren’t getting enough of those nutrients. Vitamin C and vitamin A listings are no longer required.
Both versions list calories above all of those nutrients in a large, bold type.
David Kessler, who was FDA commissioner when the first Nutrition Facts labels were unveiled in the early 1990s, said he thinks focusing on added sugars and calories will have a “demonstrative public health benefit.” He said the added sweetness, like added salt, drives overeating. And companies will adjust their recipes to get those numbers down.
“No food company wants products to look bad,” he said.
While some may ignore the panels, there’s evidence that more people are reading them in recent years as there has been a heightened interest in nutrition.
Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon contributed to this story.