Reading a food label certainly begs the question: how many people actually look at the serving size on a food item before eating it? A new food label proposal from the Obama administration is revealing shocking disparities between what people think they are eating and what they are actually consuming. A lot of that is down to the nutrition labels on food. Serving sizes shown on packaging rarely seem to reflect reality, since serving size absolutely does not equate to portion size. For instance, who really eats a half cup of breakfast cereal or ice cream? A two ounce button muffin? Just eight ounces of a soft drink out of a 12 oz container?
The way food is labelled in the US has not changed in over a decade. First Lady Michelle Obama announced Thursday a proposal to change all that sooner rather than later, with the First Lady stating that parents and consumers ought to be able to buy items from the grocery store and know exactly how good they are for their families.
The proposal has some rather pointed key provisions. One linchpin of the plan is that the new labels would have to list how much sugar was added to the food item on top of whatever natural sugars–like for example honey or dried fruit–it originally possessed, rather than just listing the total sugars. The calorie entry’s larger font would be easier to locate and read as well, but the separate added sugar entry is the kicker for many medical professionals from the American Heart Association who say that in a healthy diet women really ought not to consume more than 25 grams of added sugar a day, and men ought not to consume more than 35 grams of added sugar.
To illustrate how much “unnatural” or processed sugar that is, the average can of soda contains 40 grams of added sugar all on its own. Some professionals go as far as to say that the new proposal ought to include an entry showing these added sugars as a percent of the RDA of total sugars to give added perspective to the problem. Other RDAs will get a slight makeover as well, including changes to the recommended daily values of sodium and fiber. The ‘calories from fat’ section is also to be removed because recent science indicates that kinds of fat are more important to list than their amounts.
Another key component of the plan is to challenge the ludicrously impractical serving sizes currently listed on labels, which makes the amounts of sugars, calories, caffeine and carbs seem less daunting. The Obama administration has said that serving sizes on containers should reflect the amount of the food item that is inside the container, so that if a consumer drinks 16 oz of soda instead of 8 oz, they would know exactly what they were putting into their bodies. The new plan would indicate, in effect, a double label with two columns; the recommended serving size and its stats on one side, and the nutritional information for the entire container on the other. No calculator needed, no mental math in front of the store shelves; the new food and nutrition labels would reveal disparities between what we see and what we consume that might shock us all into healthy diets.
The vitamin stats on nutrition labels would also get an overhaul. Twenty years ago, food labels were fighting to highlight the importance of Vitamin A and C. Now those vitamins, along with the Vitamin B family, are firmly in the priorities of most consumers, giving the FDA reason to turn to an emphasis on Vitamin D for bone health and potassium for blood pressure, since consumption of those materials are highly recommended by current science.
The proposal on Thursday kicked off a 90-day review period in which public comment could be taken into account to refine the plan. The final ruling from the administration is set to take place within the next year. The FDA has asked for a period of two years after this time in which to implement the changes, since some 700,000 products would need new labels. The two-year period would allow the FDA to make the changes and to spread out the costs.
More than 300 corporations are represented by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has stated that it is the right time to update food labels, especially if the updates take into account the most recent scientific knowledge. A significant body of scientific knowledge has accumulated in the last twenty years, giving the FDA a wealth of information to incorporate. The GMA indicates a preference that the new labeling system educate consumers rather than confusing them.
There is a likelihood of some negative reactions to the plan from food companies who don’t want information like the added sugars to be so freely disseminated. Many of these corporations have strong lobbying bodies with a lot of pull in Washington. On the pro side, however, some administration officials have said the new labeling system could net a benefit of $20 to $30 billion measured against approximately $2 billion in costs spread out over the next 20 years. This highlights the benefit of having groups like the GMA on the side of the proposal, since food companies would likely have to front much of the cost for compliance. FDA officials have indicated a hope that the new labeling system will do more than educate the public about the real values of the nutritional items in their food. There is hope that new labeling practices will encourage food manufacturers to promote healthier food products in order to sell more to the savvy consumer.
The US seems to be on a slow trend out of the obesity trap with greater health and diet consciousness becoming a watchword. Michelle Obama’s campaign to combat childhood obesity seems to be having an effect. Within the group of pre-K to kindergarten-age children, there has been a 43 percent decline in obesity rates in recent years, though the rates have changed very little for older children and adults. At a standstill, the anti-obesity fight needs a kickstart, and the Obama administration has cited hopes that this new labeling system will help encourage consumers to continue the struggle toward better nutritional health. It will also help us to recognize the shocking disparity between how much sugar we consume and how much we think we do based on what is revealed in our food labels. Nutrition might just need the ammunition.
By Kat Turner