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.
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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.
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.