Proposed FDA label one step toward encouraging healthy eating

The FDA’s proposed nutrition labels reflect larger serving sizes – but that’s only one step toward encouraging healthy choices, Fred Hutch expert says
Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama, flanked by enlargements of proposed nutrition labels, during a White House event on Thursday. The proposed labels, which feature more prominent calorie counts and realistic serving sizes, are in line with the first lady's "Let's Move" campaign focused on reducing obesity. Photo by Carolyn Kaster / AP

Those little nutrition boxes on food labels may be in for some big changes if the Food and Drug Administration carries through with its current plans.

The proposed changes, announced this week, would be the first in two decades and would include more prominent calorie counts and other nutrition information based on serving sizes that reflect how Americans actually eat, an increased focus on added sugars and the removal of the “calories from fat” designation at the top of the label.

The FDA is hoping that new serving sizes will reflect what people currently eat or drink as a single serving. So, for example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda which is typically consumed in one sitting would be labeled as one serving rather than as multiple servings.

For packages that are larger than one serving, but might be consumed in a single or multiple sittings manufacturers would be required to provide “dual column” labels to indicate both the “per serving” and the “per package” calorie and nutrient information. So a pint of ice cream would have two columns of information, one for the single serving of one cup (the new one serving designation) and the other for the entire package.

The proposed change supports First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's move!" campaign. The hope is that by making the serving sizes more realistic and including information on added sugars, consumers might be better able to make healthy choices. 

“Today people are eating differently,” said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, FDA commissioner, during a White House briefing. “Many serving sizes and the amount of calories and nutrients that go with them are out of date. The FDA is proposing to update serving size requirements so that they reflect what people today actually eat and drink. The new proposed label … drives consumers’ attention to calories, serving sizes and percent daily value, three important elements to fighting obesity and certain other chronic diseases.”

Dr. Anne McTiernan, an expert in cancer prevention at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Public Health Division, agreed the new design could be a step toward helping consumers make healthier choices, but that the labels only offer one piece of the information they need.

“The labeling could be helpful in giving people information about how many calories they are taking in with processed and packaged foods,” said McTiernan, who was one of the first researchers to look at how the physical activity and weight loss can affect cancer risk. “However they also need to know more basics: what they weigh, whether it's a healthy weight for them, and what total number of calories they need to take in each day either to lose weight (if they need to) or to maintain their weight.”

One thing the FDA knows is that Americans are increasingly turning to those little boxes for nutrition information. Data from the agency’s Health and Diet Surveys in 2002 and 2008 showed that the percentage of people saying they “often” read a food label the first time they purchased a food rose from 44 percent in 2002 to 54 percent in 2008. And among those reading the labels two-thirds said they were checking to see how high or low the food was in calories, sodium, vitamins, and fat.

Look for fresh foods

But many of the healthiest foods won’t have labels at all, notes McTiernan.

“I'd also like to see people buying and preparing their own foods, like fresh vegetables, fruits, and lean sources of protein,” McTiernan said. “Many of these won’t have labels but are highly nutritious.”

And in the case of sugary drinks, the best strategy would be to avoid them as much as possible.

“I'd like to see people reduce intake of high calorie drinks like sodas, juices, alcohol and sweetened coffee drinks,” McTiernan said. “By changing to drink more non-sweetened water, tea, coffee, they can significantly lower calorie intake.”

In the end, weight is about calories in versus calories burned.

So, a big part of the puzzle, McTiernan said, is increasing regular physical activity which can help a little with weight loss and maintenance, and has other health benefits. 

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