FDA Wants Overhaul For Nutrition Labels

An emphasis on calories, added sugars and more realistic serving sizes

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The Food and Drug Administration is proposing the first big changes for food nutrition labels since they became a requirement two decades ago, with an eye toward emphasizing total calories and serving sizes more reflective of how Americans actually eat.

If the newly proposed rules go into effect, calories would appear in bolder and larger type, and consumers would be able to tell if foods contain added sugars. Serving sizes would also be sized up: Labels would have to list the total number of calories found in a package—for example, a 20-ounce drink—instead of listing smaller numbers based on arbitrary “servings” into which the contents could be divided.

“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” First Lady Michelle Obama said in a statement.  “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”

The first lady is set to appear at the FDA on Thursday to formally announce the proposed changes, part of her public health “Let’s Move” initiative. The rules likely won’t be finalized for several years.

(MORE: Why People Don’t Understand Nutrition Labels)

Nutrition advocates have long called for changes to labels they say are both outdated and difficult to comprehend. Many advocacy groups sent suggestions to the FDA for updates, prioritizing more focus on calories, added sugar and realistic servings sizes.

Some health experts wanted the proposal to require food manufactures to disclose exactly how much wheat is added to products, since many will make the claim with marketing language on packaging even though the actual amount is small. The use of grams is also confusing, and groups recommend making better use of other measurements like teaspoons.

Some advocates remain skeptical about what will actually make it onto new packaging and fear the food industry’s lobbying muscle could dent the impact of any changes.

“Based on everything I know about what the food industry has been able to do thus far, I have no confidence in the FDA to enact some of these,” said Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at University of California, San Francisco. “I have a zero confidence that without the public putting their feet to the fire that either agency can actually do the right thing by the public.”