FDA, White House Announce Sweeping Food Label Changes

Contributed by Natalie Blazer

For the first time in two decades, the Food and Drug Administration has proposed major changes to food labels, a topic we have covered extensively here at the Monitor. Calorie count will be more prominently displayed, and serving sizes will be altered to more accurately reflect the portions Americans actually consume.

If implemented, this will be the first significant revision of the nutrition information on food labels since the federal government began requiring them in the 1990s. Federal health officials have recognized that the current requirements are based on eating habits and nutrition data from the 1970s and 1980s, before portion sizes expanded substantially to what they are today. For example, 20-ounce sodas would be counted as one serving, rather than 2.5 as they are often listed now. And ice cream servings would be bumped up to one cup from half a cup, based on the premise that nobody eats just half a cup of ice cream. In essence, the proposed changes are meant to bring nutrition labels more in line with the reality of the modern American diet, and bring awareness to what and how much we are actually consuming.

The new labels will also require listing of Vitamin D and potassium content, nutrients the agency says the U.S. population does not get enough of. Vitamins A and C will no longer be required to be listed, although the manufacturer can choose to list them voluntarily. Regarding fat content, the labels are still required to list the amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, and total fat, but the current line under “calories” that says “calories from fat” will be eliminated. According to the agency, research shows that the type of fat is more important than the total number of fat calories.

Perhaps the most controversial change is one that would require food companies to list the amount of sugar that is manufactured and added to the product (as opposed to naturally-occurring sugar, from fruit for example). This change is likely to spark the most controversy because the food industry has argued against this very suggestion in the past. According to health officials, added sugar is a substantial contributor to the obesity epidemic in this country, along with obesity’s associated maladies such as diabetes and heart disease.

On a basic level, the changes are also meant to make food labels easier to understand. An example of what the new label would look like compared to the current label is available on the FDA’s website

The FDA has received staunch support on its proposal from First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign; indeed, the agency and the First Lady jointly announced the proposed label changes from the White House last week. The proposal will be open for a comment period for 90 days, and it will be more months still before any changes are made final. Food makers would then have two years to implement the changes.

Depending on how many Americans actually pay attention to food labels – something that is very much debated in the public health community – the changes could have a dramatic impact on consumer choices, or people may just continue grocery shopping as usual. If the FDA is right that the current labels are too confusing to understand, it is possible that a simpler layout and more prominent display of relevant information could draw consumers who might otherwise avoid the current label to read the new label, thereby resulting in more educated consumption.

Still, some health officials argue that changing food labels won’t have a strong impact on our eating habits overall because the main source of Americans’ calories – those consumed outside the home – are not being regulated. Particularly given the fact that the FDA’s efforts to get restaurants and movie theaters to list calorie counts have stalled, some believe that Americans will still consume a significant portion of meals and snacks that have unknown “nutritional information.” On the other hand, if the new labels achieve the FDA’s goal of providing an understanding of what a serving size is and how many calories are contained in certain foods, consumers could arguably carry that knowledge over to the choices they make even when they are not presented with an actual label, whether they are at a restaurant or a sports stadium or a child’s birthday party. 

But regardless of whether consumers are paying attention or where they’re consuming the majority of their meals, these label changes (if implemented) will be of enormous significance to food manufacturers. FDA deputy commissioner of foods Michael Taylor estimates that the proposed changes would cost the industry $2 billion to carry out (he also estimated concomitant health benefits in the amount of $30 billion). And that figure likely does not take into account any product formulation changes that might occur due to labeling incentives as discussed above. In any event, the proposal is sure to be vibrantly debated in the next 90 days, and could even change from the way it is written now. We will continue to keep you posted on these important changes and their potential impact on the food industry.