Labels on packaged foods are getting a nutritional makeover after the White House and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a major overhaul of the labeling process -- the first such update in 20 years.
The new labels will make the calorie count more obvious and include a new line for added sugar like high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners. FDA officials said specifying how much added sugar is in products will help Americans make healthier choices. Added sugar will be represented in both grams and percent daily value.
The new labels will also delineate "per serving" and "per package" calorie and nutrition information for multi-serving products like tubs of ice cream or a bag of chips.
"The fresh designs will draw people's attention to calories and servings," said Susan Mayne, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, in a press call today. "The intention is not to tell consumers what to eat, but rather to make sure they have the tools and accurate information they need to choose food that is right for themselves and their families."
First Lady Michelle Obama first announced that the FDA would update nutrition labels in 2014 at an event for the fourth year of her "Let's Move" initiative. She said then the goal of the changes was to make it easier for parents to tell if products are healthy right off the shelf.
Another new rule announced Friday updates serving sizes that are more in line with amounts that people actually consume. For example, a serving size for 12-oz and 20-oz bottles of soda will now be listed as one bottle. FDA officials stressed the change is a more accurate representation of how much people consume in one sitting (and they are not encouraging individuals to drink more soda).
Finally, the new labels contain an updated description for the meaning of "daily value" information, which FDA officials hope will be more easily comprehensible to consumers.
Nutrition expert Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University's Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and founder of the True Health Initiative, applauds the FDA on these changes while acknowledging that many consumers may still not know how to best utilize nutritional facts to make healthy choices.
"Overall, these changes are timely and represent an update that is in accord with the evolving understanding of nutritional priorities," he said. "But most people don’t know how to put that all together and make the decision 'Is this product a good choice – is there something else I should eat instead?'"
The best way to choose high-quality food, he advised, is to look for vegetables, whole grains and foods with minimal sugar or artificial ingredients. Unfortunately, he noted, consumers are often much more swayed by what's on the front of the package than the back.
"The FDA has done a really good job, but if you’ve got a particular tool, all you can do is make a better version of that tool – what if people can’t use that tool in the first place?" he asked.
Labels will gradually change over the next two years before the deadline in July 2018 and even more changes may be on the way. The FDA is also looking at whether there should be more strict rules on when products can be labeled "healthy" or "natural."