In the future, when you sit down on the couch with a bag of chips or crackers, a revamped nutrition label might make you think twice about how much of the package you eat.
For the first time in two decades, the Food and Drug Administration is proposing major changes to the familiar nutrition labels on food packages. The changes include the per-serving calorie count in large, bold type and adjustments of portion sizes.
“These changes align better with how we really eat versus how we 'should' eat,” said Sarah Schram, a clinical nutritionist with the Douglas County Health Department. “If you think of a 20-ounce bottle of pop with an 8-ounce serving size, for instance, no one stops drinking at 8 ounces. And no one wants to calculate the calories and sodium and sugar. That's just not realistic.”
The proposed changes would be the first significant redrawing of the nutrition information on food labels since the federal government started requiring them in the early 1990s. Those labels were based on eating habits and nutrition data from the 1970s and '80s, before portion sizes expanded significantly. Federal health officials argued that the changes were needed to bring labels into step with the reality of the modern American diet.
“For people to make healthier choices,” Schram said, “we have to do things like this.”
One of the more controversial changes proposed would require a separate line for sugars that are manufactured and added to food, substances that many public health experts say have contributed substantially to the obesity problem in the U.S. The food industry has argued against similar suggestions in the past.
Millions of Americans pay attention to food labels, and the changes are meant to make them easier to understand — a critical step in an era when more than one-third of adults are obese, public health experts say. The epidemic has caused rates of diabetes to soar and has increased risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Schram said the new label design emphasizes the things people should take notice of. Calorie counts are in large, bold type. At the top of the proposed label, consumers can see how many servings are in a whole container of packaged food. Daily values of things like fat, sodium and carbohydrates are listed on the left side of the label instead of the right.
Justin Kemerling, a graphic designer and owner of Justin Kemerling Design Co. in Omaha, said the label changes are subtle but meaningful.
“You can tell there's a conversation behind it,” he said. “This label goes on every food we buy and interact with, and these changes seem pretty important in terms of making it easier to understand what we consume.”
He said he could see the new design, with its large-print calories count, making an impact.
“Making that the largest type on the label seems like it would cause some sort of behavioral change,” he said, “and if not changing that, at least making us aware of that number. It's a baby step, but an important step.”
In all, the agency has proposed changing the serving size in about 17 percent of the approximately 150 categories of packaged food. It would also add labels to some foods that were not mainstream in the early 1990s, such as Asian dumplings, won ton wrappers and sun-dried tomatoes. Twenty-ounce bottles of soda would be counted as one serving, rather than the 2.5 servings often listed now. And the serving size listed on cartons of ice cream, currently half a cup, would be increased to one cup.
“Those changes will make people think, 'Wow, you can't just eat the whole bag,' ” Schram said.
Kellie Westbrook, a dietitian for Alegent Creighton Health, said the proposed changes could make it easier for people with health conditions such as diabetes to make the right food choices.
She said choosing foods with more whole grains, canola and olive oils and avoiding those with partially hydrogenated fats is a good start. The label's larger focus on daily percentages is also helpful, because it means consumers who are, for instance, on a low sodium diet can see at a glance which items are better choices.
“It's the difference between calculating and just knowing,” she said.
Other public health officials were skeptical, arguing that too few Americans use nutrition labels for the changes to make much of a difference. Some argue that restaurants, which are a major source of calories for Americans and have increased portion sizes substantially, are the biggest offenders.
While some may ignore the panels, there's evidence that more people are reading them. A USDA study released earlier this year said 42 percent of working adults used the panel always or most of the time in 2009 and 2010, up from 34 percent two years earlier. Older adults were more likely to use it.
The proposed changes will be open to public comment for 90 days, and it will take months before any change is made final. In a special concession to industry, the agency is allowing companies two years to put the changes into effect.
It was not clear how the food industry would react to the proposed changes. The Grocery Manufacturers' Association, an industry group, said, “We look forward to working with the FDA and other stakeholders.” It added, “It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science.”
Omaha-based ConAgra Foods said in a statement: “We applaud 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.”
Schram said she thinks the proposals are coming at the right moment.
“There's more of a focus on health and wellness in Omaha and across the country,” she said. “Parents are paying attention for their kids, adults are thinking about it. It's been 20 years. It's about time for a change.”
This report includes information from the New York Times and the Associated Press.
» Serving portion more prominent
» Calories in large bold text
» Daily percentages placed first
» Added sugars shown
» Vitamins A, C removed; vitamin D, potassium added
» Serving sizes adjusted; single-serving sizes will be more realistic to reflect how much people typically eat at one time. For example, the serving size of ice cream would double from ½ cup to 1 cup:
» Under current guidelines, 1 pint of ice cream consists of four servings of 200 calories each.
» Proposed changes would allow for 400 calories per serving, or two per pint.