FDA Proposes Major Food-Label Revamp to Combat Obesity

FDA Nutrition Facts Label
J. David Ake/APA current nutrition facts label on the side of a cereal box.
By Toni Clarke

WASHINGTON -- Packaged foods sold in the United States would display calorie counts more prominently and include the amount of added sugar under a proposal to significantly update nutritional labels for the first time in 20 years as health officials seek to reduce obesity and combat related diseases such as diabetes.

The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday its proposal would also ensure that the amount of calories listed per serving reflects the portions that people typically eat. That change may result in per-serving calorie counts doubling for some foods such as ice cream.

First lady Michelle Obama, who has used her White House position to launch the "Let's Move" campaign to fight childhood obesity, announced the proposal alongside the FDA.

The principle behind the update is "very simple," she said in a statement. "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."

While the FDA already requires companies to list the amount of sugar in a product, under the proposal they would also be required to list the amount of added sugar. Natural sugar is contained in fruits. Added sugar includes corn syrup and concentrated juice as well as white and brown sugar.

In addition, the labeling on vitamin content would change, with companies required to list the amount of potassium and vitamin D. Currently, companies are required to list the amounts of vitamin A and vitamin C, but the FDA said deficiencies in vitamin D and potassium are more likely.

Dr. David Kessler, who was commissioner of the FDA when the original labels were created, said the proposed update is a "critically important" advance in public health.

"The food label is not just about giving consumers information but about creating incentives for the industry to create healthier products," he said in an interview. "No company wants their product to look bad on the food label."

The FDA estimated the cost to industry of updating the labels will be about $2 billion while the benefit to consumers is estimated at between $20 billion to $30 billion.

The updates would take another three years or so to take effect. First there will be a 90-day public comment period, after which the FDA will draw up final rules. Once finalized, companies will have two years to comply with the regulations.

"It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science," Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said in a statement. "Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers."

The trade group represents food, beverage and consumer products companies.

More Calories for Chubby Hubby?

In addition to having calorie counts displayed in a larger font, consumers may also get something of a wake-up call with the proposed changes in per-serving calorie counts.

By law, serving sizes must reflect the amount consumers typically eat, yet serving sizes listed on many packaged goods often differ wildly from what people actually eat. A serving of ice cream, for example, is currently listed as half a cup. Yet few people stop at half a cup.

Under the FDA's proposal, a serving of ice cream would be a cup, doubling the calorie count and potentially giving consumers pause as they survey their options.
The number of calories in a serving of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream, for example, would be about 660 instead of the current 330.

By contrast, the serving size for yogurt would fall from the current level of 8 ounces to the more commonly consumed 6 ounces, the FDA said.

In the case of packages that can be consumed in multiple sittings, such as family-sized bags of potato chips, manufacturers would have to provide two labels, one to show the nutritional information "per serving" and the other to provide the "per package" information.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the proposed label change reflects what "has been learned about the connection between what we eat and the development of serious chronic diseases impacting millions of Americans."

Even so, the extent to which nutritional labels affect consumer behavior is unclear.

"The evidence is thin and highly variable," said Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University.

Christopher Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, said it is "hard to parse the impact of the nutrition facts label."

The updated labeling would reflect advances in scientific knowledge about sugars and fats. Companies would be required to list the amount of total fat, saturated fat and trans fat in a product but would no longer have to list calories from fat since the type of fat consumed is more important than the amount, the FDA said.

In November the agency proposed banning artificial trans fats, long associated with an increased risk of heart disease, in processed foods.

The current nutritional information is based on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet. The FDA said it hasn't yet established whether that figure will remain or be changed.

The proposed changes would affect all packaged foods except certain meat, poultry and processed egg products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

-Additional reporting by Susan Heavey.

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When I'm eating something the last thing I want to see is the warning and calorie label to dissuade me from eating it.

February 27 2014 at 11:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Monsanto is so laughing at this joke! I see very little change. If I could see a NON-GMO VERIFIED PROJECT label on the product, I would not have to waste a whole lot more time reading that damn label. Wasting time is all I see here. Ridiculous!!!!!

February 27 2014 at 8:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As Far as I am concerned Labels are a waist of time...Only Liberals read them and the rest of us will continue buying the same products we have been all our lives. Michelle ....Like her Husband is educated well beyond her means.

February 27 2014 at 5:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tim and Marnie

The FDA should ban the plastic powder that is used in breads that all Americans eat. The chemical is AZIDOCARBONAMIDE and if you read the label of ingredients and see this do not buy the bread. This chemical is a carcinogen that causes cancer and asthma it has been banned in Europe and Austrailia. US Senator Chuck Shumer has called for this Chemical to be banned in the USA and the FDA has done nothing to stop the use by bakeries.

February 27 2014 at 3:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The changes they are implementing are just not benificial.

1) Bigger serving sizes will just justify overeating
2) Larger calorie prominence will likely just be overlooked as the calories are already prominent
3) Pointing out the natural sugars from the not so natural sugar will just be another justification to eat the foods we want since they were able to label them "natural".

These changes are just going to cost the consumer more money and less than half of the population is reading them anyway. Let's learn to read and understand the labels we already have!!

Sherri Sue Fisher, author of TimerDiet

February 27 2014 at 3:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They should be listing Genetically Modified foods as well. Sugar is bad but GMO's are worse.

February 27 2014 at 3:21 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ettenyl19's comment
Jerry Alez

The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops. GM crops imply an improvement to the crop, for instance GM crops might need less chemicals to fight pests or diseases.

February 27 2014 at 7:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That's a great idea but how does one justify 3 YEARS to change the way something is counted and printed?
But even more importantly, to me, would be labels I can read and actually understand without carrying a dictionary. One example, reading from a label on my shelf right now; 2% or less of lactic acid esters of mono and diglycerides. Now how is the normal shopper supposed to know what the heck that is? In fact, reading that label I only recognize 4 of the 30+ ingredients so how am I to make an educated decision on weather or not this item is healthy?
If the FDA and Mrs. Obama really want to make a difference, force companies to list their ingredients in terms most anyone would know. And please label anything that is GM in those ingredients!

February 27 2014 at 2:22 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Big Deal, FDA needs to take out killer drugs from shelves, they know which ones they are but the drug companies are big then the government.

February 27 2014 at 1:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Big Deal, FDA should do their job and put these killer drugs off the market, but the drug companies are bigger then the government and that's why these drugs keep killing people:
Pelvis mesh
Do not take these drugs or you will die

February 27 2014 at 1:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jj's comment

I don't see an MD or an NP after your name, so i will write this off as your opinion. We prescribe thesemedicines when they are needed and they have actualy helped to save lives. And, jj, anyone can abuse a properly prescribed drug. Go get some education before you pontificate, please.

February 27 2014 at 5:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Like this is going to amount to anything except to raise the price of everything. Its like lowering SNAP, all that did was cause people to do with out the food they really needed/ the older ones on fixed incomes. I know I an one of them.

February 27 2014 at 12:54 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply