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Health Care

New Nutrition Labels Will Make You Feel Guilty

The FDA wants to make sure you can't miss calorie amounts on food labels. But will that change your eating habits?

photo of Brian Resnick
February 27, 2014

(FDA / via CBS)First lady Michelle Obama and the Food and Drug Administration are set to announce new food labeling regulations Thursday, the final product of which you can see here. 

The label on the left reflects the current design. The label on the right is new. Aside from a much cleaner overall presentation, it's clear what the new design is intended to do: make you see the calories both in a serving and in the entire package of food. 

The new labels also add the category "added sugars," which are defined as any sugars that aren't naturally found in fruit. This may prove to be controversial, as some will argue that sugar is sugar no matter the form.  Others will point out that added sugars, and not fruit sugars, are the more closely correlated with diabetes and heart disease. Likewise, "calories from fat" will not appear on the new labels to not distract from the types of fat (saturated, trans), which are more meaningful measures of a food's health worthiness. 

 

Along with the labels come new regulations for serving sizes. They will now be based on what people "actually eat." No longer will a serving of ice cream be half a cup (come on, do you really stop scooping after exactly half a cup?). It will be a cup (which, let's be honest, is still kind of small). As Reuters reports, "The number of calories in a serving of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream, for example, would be about 660 instead of the current 330." That's 100 calories more than a Big Mac. Family-sized foods such as potato chips must have two nutrition columns: one for individual servings, and one for "yeah, you're going to eat this whole bag of chips alone."

The food industry is sure to fight back. The announcement of the new labels starts a 90-day period for public comment, to which the FDA can respond to and change the design. The Washington Post reports the process could take a year. Then, the labels (which will cost the food industry $2 billion) will be phased in over the next three years. 

The FDA's own recent research found that increasing the font size of the calories alone did not "improve participant's comprehension over the current label." What it did find more conclusively was that to decrease the amount of servings in a package (and thereby increase the per serving calories), "caused the participants to rate the products as being less healthful."

Changes aside, the new labels still don't address some of the fundamental problems with the older nutrition fact labels, such as the fact that the FDA allows for a 20 percent margin of error when it comes to calculating calories. And only time and research can tell if the labels work as they are designed to—that is, change consumer behavior, and thereby quell the obesity epidemic. 

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