11 March 2014
With a proposed new label design that gives the Nutrition Facts on packaged foods and beverages their most sweeping update in more than two decades, the Obama administration is trying to make good on its promise to make Americans healthier. News reports stress that "Americans are in for a reality check" -but so is the food and beverage industry if and when the changes take place.

What May Rankle: Serving Size Updates

One chief food label change may be larger serving sizes, which in some cases will double previous amounts. So a two-liter bottle of soda, which offers eight servings at 100-150 calories each, may shrink to four at 200-300 calories each. A pint of ice cream, which some makers label presently as four servings with 150-200 calories each, will jump to just two servings at 300-400 calories each. According to FDA, these new serving sizes will more accurately reflect how Americans actually eat. But they may also make consumers think twice before digging in.

Why FDA Believes The Change Is Necessary

It’s common knowledge that obesity in America is at a record level--the Centers for Disease Control estimate more than one-third of Americans are obese, with more teenage boys than girls being overweight and nearly 40 percent of seniors. And individuals face greater risk of stroke and diabetes when they are obese. Nearly 800,000 people suffer from strokes each year and almost 150,000 die. Nationwide, more than 11 percent of adults have diabetes, which can lead to kidney failure and blindness, notes the CDC.

Given this ’state of the union,’ First Lady Michelle Obama started her Let’s Move campaign, which, in turn, has motivated organizations across the country to encourage Americans of all ages to lose weight, eat more thoughtfully and improve fitness. Hence FDA’s proposed label changes, which are being seen as critical to providing consumers with greater amounts of contextual data to make informed choices. The new labels highlight the quantities of calories, fat, vitamins, minerals, sugar and salt contained in each product.

What The Food Label Changes Portend

Will consumers alter their eating habits based on these food label changes? Research shows that the chances are good they will if a study recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture bears out. It found Americans are eating healthier and making better-informed choices about what they eat. It notes many consumers are reading labels and basing their eating decisions on them. Specifically, it showed 57 percent of older adults rely on the Nutrition Facts label when making food choices, as do 42 percent of working-age adults. The percentage of workers interested in consulting nutritional information increases to 76 percent when dining out.

The proposed labels also feature more information on important vitamins and minerals, such as D, which assists with bone health, and potassium, which has been linked to healthy blood pressure. FDA cites these vitamins and minerals as especially important for female and elderly consumers, and many products have added them to appeal to these consumers. Also, functional foods that feature friendly bacteria or probiotics are becoming more popular, as described in one of our recent posts, and new labeling may be able to call attention to these benefits.

What The Food And Beverage Industry Can Do

In response to growing concerns, some in the food and beverage industry offered their own food label changes, especially after a 2010 request by Mrs. Obama. These included special front-of-package icons indicating quantities of calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar. In use since 2011, these icons have become popular with a majority of those who shop for groceries. Ninety percent of shoppers believe the images make "nutrition information easy to find and use" and "simple to understand," notes a recent Farm Futures story.
Will food and beverage makers consider reformulating products in response to increased consumer scrutiny? Depending on how the tides turn, companies may feel compelled to act. Some firms reformulated their products after trans fats were listed on labels, and experts say food and beverage makers may recreate items to benefit from the labels, describes a MarketWatch story.

Read FDA’s announcement to learn more about the proposed changes and to submit comments to the agency. FDA accepts comments for 90 days, and once the rule has been finalized, gives manufacturers two years to comply.

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