FDA proposes nutritional label overhaul

New labels will highlight more accurate serving size, added sugars and total calories.

It’s been over 20 years since the Food and Drug Administration has updated the Nutrition Facts label found on food packaging. Thursday the agency proposed a significant step towards providing improved and simplified nutritional information to empower consumers to make better choices for their diets.

“For 20 years consumers have come to rely on the iconic nutrition label to help them make healthier food choices,” said FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “To remain relevant, the FDA’s newly proposed Nutrition Facts label incorporates the latest in nutrition science as more has been learned about the connection between what we eat and the development of serious chronic diseases impacting millions of Americans.”

The proposed updates are intended to reflect the latest scientific information about the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease.  The proposed label would also replace out-of-date serving sizes to better align with the amount consumers actually eat, and it would feature a fresh design to highlight key parts of the label such as calories and serving sizes. 

Calorie levels will be made more prominent on the label, a senior FDA official said. Historically fat levels have been the focus, but the shift in science and nutritional understanding of what’s important revealed that calories are more important than fat, especially with the many good and bad fats in the marketplace today.

The proposed label will also require information about the amount of “added sugars” in a food product. The FDA proposes to include “added sugars” on the label to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product. A senior official explained that chemically FDA cannot distinguish added sugars from naturally occurring, however, FDA can verify through normal inspections the amount of added sugars. Another official added that companies would be required to maintain records for 2 years on sugar levels.

The senior official noted that FDA feels “very confident” on the basis for including added sugars as a separate subcategory of the sugars listing. Based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans determination that calorie intake from added sugar is too high in the U.S. population and should be reduced, FDA said. 

Another change centers around the four nutrients required on the labels. Today Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron are required. As science has shifted, the new labels will require calcium, iron, potassium and Vitamin D as required nutrients. Vitamin D is crucial to bone health and potassium plays an important role in reducing the risk of hypertension, a senior official stated.

The current wordy footnote is also under consideration to have changes made to it, further making the label more simple and readable, officials explained.

Serving size

Serving size categories are also being proposed to be updated. For instance the current serving size for soda is 8 ounces, although a can is typically 12 ounces. A 20 oz. bottle is also a normally consumed size in the marketplace and calories should be labeled as what would typically be consumed with the product.

Particularly FDA plans to change the serving size for some dairy favorites. For instance, the serving size for ice cream looks would increase from ½ cup to 1 cup. However, the current serving size of yogurt of 8 oz. will be reduced to 6 oz. which more accurately reflects the standard size on the market today.

An FDA official explained that there are over 167 serving size food categories, and the agency plans to change 27 or 17% of the categories. They’re also adding another 25 food categories that data suggests should have a specific serving size associated with it.

Timeline and impact

The proposed rule starts the final chapter of many years of working with stakeholders and proposing advanced rulemaking notices, FDA officials said.

Once the comment period closes and comments reviewed, a final rule could be published by 2015. FDA officials said they plan to allow a “more generous than usual implementation of two years to give ample time to make label adjustments and to avoid undue costs.”

One analysis indicates that significant benefits in the range of $20-$30 billion can result over the next 20 years from label changes. These benefits are associated with the overall utility of the labels as well as improved health with the reduction of chronic disease impacts and obesity.

It is estimated that the industry would bear $2 billion in costs associated with implementing changed labels.

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