WASHINGTON (AP) - Those nutrition labels on the back of food packages may soon become easier to read.
Food and Drug Administration says knowledge about nutrition has evolved
over the past 20 years, and the labels need to reflect that.
As the agency considers revisions, nutritionists and other health experts have their own wish list of desired changes.
number of calories should be more prominent, they say, and the amount
of added sugar and percentage of whole wheat in the food should be
included. They also want more clarity on how serving sizes are defined.
a feeling that nutrition labels haven't been as effective as they
should be," says Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the
Public Interest. "When you look at the label, there are roughly two
dozen numbers of substances that people aren't intuitively familiar
For example, he says, most of the nutrients are listed in
grams, the metric system's basic unit of mass. Jacobson says people
don't really understand what a gram is.
Michael Taylor, the FDA's
deputy commissioner for foods, says 20 years ago "there was a big focus
on fat, and fat undifferentiated." Since then, health providers have
focused more on calories and warned people away from saturated and trans
fats more than all fats. Trans fats were separated out on the label in
The nutrition facts label "is now 20 years old, the food
environment has changed and our dietary guidance has changed," says
Taylor, who was at the agency in the early 1990s when the FDA first
introduced the label at the behest of Congress. "It's important to keep
this updated so what is iconic doesn't become a relic."
has sent guidelines for the new labels to the White House, but Taylor
would not estimate when they might be released. The FDA has been working
on the issue for a decade, he said.
There's evidence that more people are reading the labels in recent years.
to an Agriculture Department study released this month, a greater%age
of adults reported using the nutrition facts panel and other claims on
food packages "always or most of the time" in 2009 and 2010 compared
with two years earlier.
The USDA study said 42% of working adults
used the panel always or most of the time in 2009 and 2010, while older
adults used it 57% of the time during that period.
change in the label is to make the calorie listing more prominent, and
Regina Hildwine of the Grocery Manufacturers Association said that could
be useful to consumers. Her group represents the nation's largest food
Hildwine said FDA also has suggested that it may be appropriate to remove the "calories from fat" declaration on the label.
not yet clear what other changes the FDA could decide on. Nutrition
advocates are hoping the agency adds a line for sugars and syrups that
are not naturally occurring in foods and drinks and are added when they
are processed or prepared. Right now, some sugars are listed separately
among the ingredients and some are not.
It may be difficult for
the FDA to figure out how to calculate added sugars, however. Food
manufacturers are adding naturally occurring sugars to their products so
they can label them as natural - but the nutrition content is no
Other suggestions from health advocates:
the percentage of whole wheat to the label. Many manufacturers will
label products "whole wheat" when there is really only a small
percentage of it in the food.
- Clearer measurements. Jacobson of
CSPI and others have suggested that the FDA use teaspoons instead of
grams on the label, since consumers can envision a teaspoon.
Serving sizes that make sense. There's no easy answer, but health
experts say that single-size servings that are clearly meant to be eaten
in one sitting will often list two or three servings on the label,
making the calorie and other nutrient information deceptive. FDA said
last year that it may add another column to the labels, listing
nutrition information per serving and per container. The agency may also
adjust recommended serving sizes for some foods.
labeling. Beyond the panel on the back, nutrition experts have pushed
for labels on the package front for certain nutrients so consumers can
see them more easily. The FDA said several years ago it would issue
guidelines for front of pack labeling, but later said it would hold off
to see if the industry could create its own labels.
Tracy Fox, a
Washington-based nutrition consultant, says clearer information is
needed to balance the billions of dollars a year that the food industry
spends on food marketing.
"There's a lot of information there,
it's messy," she says. "There may be a way to call out certain things
and put them in context."