February 27, 2014

Finally! Nutrition label changes could make it clearer to Americans what they’re actually eating. This morning, first lady Michelle Obama introduced an FDA-backed plan to significantly revise food labels.

Insert applause here, then begin holding breath.

• The most prominent text on the label would tell you how many servings are actually in a box or bag. No longer would a small bag of chips note in small type that it contains “2.5 servings.” That bag would be one serving, and the total nutrition, including calories, would be more easily seen.

• In a related move, serving sizes would become more realistic for some foods, reflecting what people actually eat today.  A serving of ice cream, right now reckoned to be ½ cup, becomes 1 cup, because that’s what the FDA reckons that most Americans eat.

•  Added sugars would now be clearly listed. This would differentiate between sugars found naturally in foods (such as milk and fruit) and those added by manufacturers. The juice and pulp of one whole mango has 30g of sugar; so does ¼ cup of Skittles candy.  The new label would help make clear which one has the added sugar.

• Potassium and vitamin D would make an appearance. These are two key nutrients that some Americans aren’t getting enough of. Vitamin D is important for its role in bone health. Potassium is beneficial in lowering blood pressure, potentially counteracting the effects of a high-sodium diet.

The “calories from fat” number would be cut from the label. What you would see—more important to health—is the breakdown of the types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated. Generally, Americans need to cut sat fat in favor of other “healthy” fats, and this change should help them do that.

“Our guiding principle here is very simple,” said the first lady. “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. So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”

The changes will take time, if they happen. The FDA has opened a 90-day comment period, during which experts, members of the public, and the food industry can weigh in on the proposed rules. The agency will then review the feedback and issue a final rule, a step that could take more than a year.  Once a final rule is issued, companies have two years to implement the changes, which the FDA says could cost $2 billion to implement (but it predicts many more billions in health benefits).

Our take at Cooking Light is that the food industry may kick up a bit of a fuss, either arguing that the costs are excessive or the benefits imagined, but it’s hard to imagine consumers being agitated the way some were over the New York “soda law.” These label changes don’t propose to restrict consumer choice. They are about transparency in the midst of a widely understood obesity crisis. Whether the new labels might cause confusion is another question (“Look, now I can eat a cup of ice cream when I thought I could only eat half a cup!”).

Meanwhile, research shows that more of us are paying attention to labels. A recent USDA study indicates that 42% of adults between the ages of 29 and 68 are reading labels while shopping, up from 34% in 2007.

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