FDA proposes first new food labels in decades

(USA TODAY) --The nutrition labels on the backs of 700,000 packaged foods aregetting a proposed makeover that will make calorie counts morenoticeable, serving sizes more realistic and added sugars more obvious.

The changes,proposed by the Food and Drug Administration, were unveiled at theWhite House Thursday by first lady Michelle Obama. The announcement wastied to the fourth anniversary of her Let's Move Campaign. Like thatcampaign, the labeling proposal reflects concerns about obesity and thequality of the American diet that were not as prominent when the labelslast had a major update in the early 1990s.

"This is a huge deal,"Obama said. A consumer "should be able to walk into a grocery store,pick an item off the shelf and tell whether it's good for your family."

TheFDA is releasing two versions of the proposed label for everyone fromfood manufacturers to dietitians to comment on in the next 90 days.Manufacturers would have two years to comply with final requirements,FDA says.

Among the proposed changes in what FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg calls "new and improved, more user friendly" labels:

• Calorie counts will be in bigger, bolder print than other facts.

• Grams of added sugars, whether they come from corn syrup, honey, sucrose or any other source, will be shown in one number.

•Serving sizes will reflect portions people typically eat, as shown bystudies - meaning they will be bigger than serving sizes are now on manyproducts.

• "Calories from fat" will be gone, while total fat,saturated and trans fats remain, reflecting science showing the type offat people eat is more important than the amount.

• Labels willlist vitamin D and potassium instead of vitamins A and C, reflectingshifting concerns about common deficiencies in American diets.

"We realize the labels alone won't magically change how America eats," but they will provide new tools, Hamburg says.

Nutrition experts said they saw plenty to like, even as somesuggested their own tweaks. Food companies can be expected to raiseconcerns about the costs and at least some of the details.

Makingcalorie counts bigger and bolder is the right thing to do because "themajor public health crisis in the United States is body weight," saysAlice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science at TuftsUniversity, Boston. On existing labels, "the calorie information doesn'tpop out, and it isn't clear to the consumer that the calories are theamount per serving."

The proposed labels make serving sizesclearer and in many cases, realistically bigger, says Michael Jacobson,executive director of the non-profit Center for Science in the PublicInterest, Washington. For example, a serving of ice cream would risefrom half a cup to a full cup, and a one-serving muffin would be fourounces instead of two ounces.

The proposal also says foods anddrinks that people typically consume in one sitting - such as 20-ouncebottles of soda - will be labeled as single servings.

The changeswill "prevent companies from using these large single-serving packagesand pretending they are multiple servings," Jacobson says.

Hamburgmade it clear FDA isn't saying people should consume bigger servingsof ice cream and soda: "Contrary to what people might think, servingsizes on food packages are not recommended portions."

The listingof added sugars will help consumers sort out which sugar comes from thepeaches in their canned peaches and which comes from sweeteners,Jacobson says. The same goes, he says, for foods such as sweetenedyogurt, where some sugar comes from milk and fruit but a lot comes fromadded sugar. "That's an important change," he says.

He says hewould be happier if the added sugar was listed in teaspoons, whichconsumers understand better than grams. He also says the FDA is settingdaily values for sodium higher than many experts might like, at 2,300milligrams a day, and not addressing caffeine.

The biggestquestion is whether the changes will actually lead more consumers toread and use the information to eat fewer calories and watch theirconsumption of everything from sugar to sodium and fiber.

JeremyKees, an associate professor of marketing at Villanova University inPennsylvania, is skeptical. To the average consumer, he says, these maybe "subtle changes to what I would consider an already clutteredenvironment on the back of the package. I wouldn't think the FDA wouldexpect large, measurable changes in the short term, especially if thereare no educational campaigns."

The FDA is expected to test the labels with consumers, Lichtensteinsays. "That's going to be crucial. Sometimes people interpret things in away we didn't expect."

A recent study from the U.S. Department ofAgriculture found 42% of working-age adults and 57% of older adults saythey use the nutrition facts panel "always or most of the time."

Earlyreports suggest food companies will raise concerns about costs andfight the call for listing added sugars. "Everyone in the industry isgoing to be affected. Everyone in the industry is going to have tochange their labels," Regina Hildwine of the Grocery ManufacturersAssociation told Politicoearlier this week. "It's a very big deal. It's very expensive."

Ina statement Thursday, the association says: "It is critical that anychanges are based on the most current and reliable science. Equally asimportant is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, andnot confuse, consumers."

Hamburg says the FDA hopes labeling changes will motivate the food industry to reformulate some products.

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