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?

National Journal
Brian Resnick
Add to Briefcase
Brian Resnick
Feb. 27, 2014, 2:35 a.m.

(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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