New nutrition labels proposed Thursday for many popular foods, including ice cream, aim to more accurately reflect what people actually eat. The proposal would make calorie counts on labels more prominent, too, reflecting that nutritionists now focus more on calories than fat.
For the first time, labels also would be required to list any sugars that are added by manufacturers.
In one example of the change, the estimated serving size for ice cream would jump from a half-cup to a cup, so the calorie listing on the label would double as well.
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The idea behind the change, the first overhaul of the labels in two decades, isn’t that the government thinks people should be eating twice as much; it’s that they should understand how many calories are in what they already are eating. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that, by law, serving sizes must be based on actual consumption, not some ideal.
The calorie count’s larger typeface than any other information on the label is intended to shout a clear message over the cacophony of dietary advice: that too many of these are, first and foremost, the cause of obesity.
The dreaded reference to “calories from fat” has been stricken from the revamped box altogether. That move reflects mounting evidence that all fats are not equal: while some types contribute to heart attacks and strokes, others are a crucial part of a healthful diet. A serving’s total fat content, and grams of saturated and trans fats — notorious culprits in cardiovascular disease — are displayed at the head of the nutrient list.
“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,” said first lady Michelle Obama, who joined the FDA in announcing the proposed changes at the White House.
Mrs. Obama made the announcement as part of her Let’s Move initiative to combat child obesity, which is marking its fourth anniversary. On Tuesday, she announced new Agriculture Department rules that would reduce marketing of less-healthful foods in schools.
The new labels would be less cluttered. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg called them “a more user-friendly version.”
But they are probably several years away. The FDA will take comments on the proposal for 90 days, and a final rule could take another year. Once it’s final, the agency has proposed giving industry two years to comply.
The agency projects food companies will have to pay about $2 billion to revise labels. Companies have resisted some of the changes in the past, including listing added sugars, but the industry is so far withholding criticism.
Pamela Bailey, of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the industry group that represents the nation’s largest food companies, called the proposal a “thoughtful review.”
It is still not clear what the final labels will look like. The FDA offered two labels in its proposal — one that looks similar to the current version but is shorter and clearer and another that groups the nutrients into a “quick facts” category for things such as fat, carbohydrates, sugars and proteins.
There also would be an “avoid too much” category for saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar, and a “get enough” section with vitamin D, potassium, calcium, iron and fiber.
Potassium and vitamin D would be additions, based on current thinking that Americans aren’t getting enough of those nutrients. The additions come against the backdrop of research linking vitamin D deficiencies to a wide range of ills, including depression, obesity and diminished immune response, and potassium deficits to heart-rhythm disorders, hypertension and muscle weakness. Vitamin C and vitamin A listings are no longer required.
Serving sizes have long been misleading, with many single-serving packages listing themselves as multiple servings, so the calorie count appears lower.
Under the proposed rules, both 12-ounce and 20-ounce soft drinks would be considered one serving, and many foods that are often eaten in one sitting — a bag of chips or a frozen entree, for example — would either be newly listed as a single serving or would list nutrient information both by serving and by container.
The inclusion of added sugars to the label was one of the biggest revisions. Nutrition advocates have long asked for that on the label because it’s impossible for consumers to know how much sugar in an item is naturally occurring, such as that in fruit and dairy products, and how much is added by the manufacturer. Think an apple versus applesauce, which comes in sweetened and unsweetened varieties.
According to the Agriculture Department’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, added sugars contribute an average of 16 percent of the total calories in U.S. diets.
Some public-health advocates said that the added-sugar category should also display the amount of sugar as a percentage of recommended daily value, argued Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “So many people consume far too much,” he said.
Jacobson noted that the American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day and men no more than 35 grams per day, while one can of pop contains about 40 grams. While some people ignore the panels, there’s evidence that more are reading them in recent years as there has been a heightened interest in nutrition. An Agriculture Department study released 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.