First Look: The FDA's Nutrition Label Gets A Makeover

Feb 26, 2014
Originally published on March 4, 2014 9:33 am

Ready for a reality check about how many calories you're eating or drinking?

The proposed new nutrition facts panel may help.

The Obama administration Thursday released its proposed tweaks to the iconic black and white panel that we're all accustomed to seeing on food packages.

The most visible change is that calorie counts are bigger and bolder — to give them greater emphasis.

In addition, serving sizes start to reflect the way most of us really eat. Take, for example, ice cream. The current serving size is a half-cup. But who eats that little?

Under the proposed new label, the serving size would become 1 cup. So, when you scoop a bowl of mint chocolate chip, the calorie count that you see on the label will probably be much closer to what you're actually eating.

Another example: A 20-ounce bottle of soda would be labeled as one serving. And with that, the calorie count at the top would come closer to reality.

Another significant change: The new panel will include a separate line for added sugars.

This is aimed at helping consumers distinguish between the sugars that are naturally found in foods (such as the sugar in raisins found in cereal) from the refined sugars that food manufacturers add to their products.

"I've been hoping for years that the FDA would list added sugars," Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, tells us. "I definitely think it's helpful."

As we've reported, there's a solid body of evidence linking excessive sugar consumption to an increased risk of heart disease and other ailments.

And the intent here, senior administration officials say, is to help cue Americans to consume less of it. Despite industry opposition to the listing of added sugars, officials say they're confident the science is strong enough to justify adding it to the label.

The proposed new label makes a slight tweak to sodium labeling, by making a small downward revision in daily values for sodium. It's a "step in the right direction," says Michael Jacobsen of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He points to the link between excess salt consumption and heart disease.

So why these changes now? "To help address obesity, one of the most important public health problems facing our country, the proposed label would drive attention to calories and serving sizes," writes Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, in a release.

And as part of the streamlining efforts, the label would cut out the listing of calories from fat. This is, in part, a reflection of the fact that there are good fats and bad fats. The fat-free thinking that so swept the country in the 1990s, when the original nutrition facts panel was introduced, has given way to much more nuanced thinking about fats.

The first lady is expected to unveil the new label Thursday during a White House ceremony. In a statement, she wrote, "This is a big deal, and it's going to make a big difference for families all across the country."

Here are other proposed changes, according to the FDA:

  • Present "dual column" labels to indicate both "per serving" and "per package" calorie and nutrition information for larger packages that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings.
  • Require the declaration of potassium and vitamin D, nutrients that some in the U.S. population are not getting enough of, which puts them at higher risk for chronic disease. Vitamin D is important for its role in bone health. Potassium is beneficial in lowering blood pressure. Vitamins A and C would no longer be required on the label, though manufacturers could declare them voluntarily.
  • Revise the daily values for a variety of nutrients such as sodium, dietary fiber and vitamin D. Daily values are used to calculate the percent daily value on the label, which helps consumers understand the nutrition information in the context of a total daily diet.
  • While continuing to require "Total Fat," "Saturated Fat," and "Trans Fat" on the label, "Calories from Fat" would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.

Expect an active debate on the proposed changes.

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

The FDA says it will accept public comment on the proposal for 90 days.

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The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a makeover of the nutrition labels we see on the back and side of food packages. You know, these are the black and white squares that tell us exactly how many calories or grams of fat we're taking in per serving. Well, today at the White House the first lady is expected to unveil some major changes to what we see in that label. NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us to give us some details in the studio. Good morning, Allison.


GREENE: OK. So these nutrition labels, nothing new. I mean people who watch and are conscious about their health, they've been looking at these things for years. They're part of weight loss programs. Kids learn...

AUBREY: Right. Exactly.

GREENE: ...about them in school.

AUBREY: Right.

GREENE: I mean is there a problem with these labels that they're trying to address?

AUBREY: Well, you know, one of the criticisms of this label is that it's confusing in part because there's just so much information here, and it doesn't help draw attention to the one or two things we're all being told to pay more attention to.

GREENE: You see all those numbers and you're like, I'm going just going to look away...

You see all those numbers and you're like, I'm just going to look away.

AUBREY: That's right. So how about focusing our eyes on calories and portion sizes? If you look at this new mockup I've got here, of the proposed labels, the calories go right to the top - it's in big, bold print here. Your eyes...

GREENE: Oh, it's huge. It's says calories 230, bam.

AUBREY: Right, that's right. Your eye just jumps there. And, you know, the folks at the FDA say this is point; counting calories or at least being aware of them is one of the most effective, simplest things we can do to control their weight. So the thought is: Hey, you know, let's make it the focus.

GREENE: You have a big pint of ice cream in the studio...



GREENE: ...which I know probably isn't good for me. I mean, do I look at the label to know that? Or what's the deal?


AUBREY: Well, if you look closely here, what you'll see is that it says 120 calorie per serving. Now, that doesn't sound too bad, right?


AUBREY: I mean but the serving size is a half cup. I mean it wouldn't even fill half of this mug here and it'd be up to a half cup, so most of us eat a lot more than a half cup. The new label will set a standard for the ice cream serving: one serving equals one cup, which is a lot closer to what we eat. And it's less likely that we'll delude ourselves into thinking that we're eating just 120 calories.

The same is true for a bottle of soda. Currently there might be two or two and a half servings in a bottle. The new label would require a 20 ounce bottle to list calories of the entire bottle as one serving. So you don't have to do the math and you'll know that the calorie count at the top is exactly what you're getting.

GREENE: Yeah, I just drink my bottle of Diet Coke. I don't...

AUBREY: You got zero calories there.


GREENE: Yeah, that's right. OK, so what are the changes that we are seeing? What other changes are we seeing here?

AUBREY: Well, take sugar. The current label only requires manufacturers to list total sugars, which makes it really, really difficult, almost impossible to tell how much sugar is naturally present in something like a yogurt, and how much has been added to the food by manufacturers. So the new proposal calls for a separate listing of added sugar. These are any of the refined sugars you'll hear about; anything from high fructose corn syrup to evaporated cane juice.

And this is something that nutrition advocates have really been pushing for. The food industry has sort of resisted. But the FDA says: Hey, look. The evidence is really solid. Excessive, you know, high sugar intake increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, other ailments, and it turns out that most of us are consuming just way too much of it.

GREENE: So, you bring up this evidence they've been looking at. I mean is that what's driving the changes here? Are they going after a certain segment of the population? I mean why now and who are they targeting?

AUBREY: Well, largely these changes are coming as a shift in nutritional science. I mean when this label was introduced in the early 1990s, there was a big emphasis on avoiding fat. Fat was the enemy in lots of people's eyes. But there's much more nuanced thinking now. There are good fats that we're supposed to getting more of, and bad fats we're told to limit. So if you look at this new label here, they have taken away the labeling of calories from fat - no mention of it. And that's because this is no longer thought to be helpful.

Now, in terms of the timing of this announcement, it's tied to the fourth anniversary celebration of the first lady's Let's Move Initiative, which has really helped to shine a spotlight on the nation's obesity problem and the need for Americans to change their eating habits. And just this week, the CDC published new data pointing to a drop in the obesity rate among very young children.

So there's a lot of, you know, optimism about this. And the administration sees the proposal like this, the new nutrition label, as a tool to really sort of how people who are trying hard to make healthy choices when they're shopping.

I don't know about you but when I go to the grocery, I've often got one kid in the cart and one nagging me. So for moms like me, the idea of a really clear, simple label is really appealing.

GREENE: You can leave that ice cream here when you leave the studio.


GREENE: That's really OK.

AUBREY: OK. All yours, David.

GREENE: We've been talking about changes to food labels with NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks for coming in, Allison.

AUBREY: All right, thanks so much.

GREENE: And you're listening to her reporting on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.