FDA proposes major food label update in bid to fight obesity
By Toni Clarke
WASHINGTON (Reuters) — 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 on 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, the proposal requires them 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.
The FDA, which has been discussing proposed label changes with the industry for nearly a decade, 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 about three years to take effect. After a 90-day public comment period, the FDA will draw up final rules. Once finalized, companies will have two years to comply with the regulations.
When labeling was first introduced, companies fought it “tooth and nail,” said Dr. David Kessler, who was commissioner of the FDA when the original labels were created. “They will certainly put up a fuss here, but at the end of the day they will learn to live with it and thrive and make better products because of it.”
The reaction from food makers was subdued.
“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.
Lanie Friedman, a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods Inc. , whose brands range from Healthy Choice to Reddi-wip to Hebrew National, said in an email that while the company “applauds efforts to make nutrition panels more useful to consumers, such as placing more prominence on calorie information, other changes proposed are significant and will take time to implement.”
General Mills, the maker of cereals Cheerios and Wheaties and products ranging from Haagen-Dazs ice cream to Yoplait yogurt, said it has long been an advocate of communicating clear nutritional information on products.
“That’s especially true of calories and serving sizes, but also true of important benefits that consumers are seeking, like calcium and whole grain,” Kris Patton, a company spokeswoman, said in an email.
Increased calories for Chubby Hubby ice cream?
The proposal comes days after a federal health survey showed a 43 percent decline in obesity among children aged 2 to 5 years, though overall obesity rates remain unchanged.
Calories will be displayed in larger font, and consumers may get a wake-up call with proposed changes to serving sizes.
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 there.
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 nutritional information “per serving” and the other to provide “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.”
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.
Studies analyzing the impact of menu labels has been mixed. Recent research from Carnegie Mellon University showed that recommended calorie intake information did not help consumers use menu labeling more effectively.
Hamburg conceded that the new food labels alone will not “magically change how America eats,” but added the hope that “once consumers decide to implement changes in their diet that lead to healthier lifestyles it will provide them with the tools to be successful.”
The proposal requires companies to list the amount of total fat, saturated fat and trans fat in a product, as is currently the case, but they 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 new proposal would also reduce the recommended daily amount of sodium to 2,300 milligrams from 2,400 milligrams, though some would like that reduction to go further.
“There is strong scientific evidence that indicates lowering sodium can result in significant reductions in blood pressure,” the American Heart Association said in a statement, adding that it will continue to recommend that daily sodium intake be limited to 1,500 milligrams.
In addition, companies would be required to list the amount of potassium and vitamin D. Currently, they are required to list vitamin A and vitamin C. Those listings in future would be optional. The FDA said people are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D and potassium.
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.