The nutrition labels on packaged food and beverages may be due a makeover, thanks to proposals from the Food and Drug Administration.
The agency is accepting public comment on the proposed changes for 90 days. If passed, the proposed changes will mark the first major overhaul for nutrition labels since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made them compulsory 20 years ago.
FDA officials say that the redesign has been prompted by a shift in shoppers' priorities. They claim that nutrition is now better understood by consumers, and paying attention to what it says on the label plays an important role in that understanding.
Last month, the US Department of Agriculture reported that 42% of adults between 29 and 68 - and 57% of Americans over 68 - take nutrition labeling into account most or all of the time when shopping.
In 2007, a similar survey found that only 34% of working-age Americans and 51% of seniors took labeling into consideration when purchasing food.
By comparison, in 2012 Medical News Today reported on a study finding that, in Europe, nutritional labeling is largely being ignored by consumers.
Introduced to food packaging in the 1960s - primarily for people with special dietary needs - nutrition labeling was voluntary until 1990, when the FDA began to request labels for prepared and packaged food. This followed a trend that saw fewer Americans preparing meals at home, compared with previous decades.
Renewed focus on calories and added sugars
The proposed changes are designed to make finding healthier foods easier. The new labels will focus more on calories, added sugars and certain nutrients.
"By revamping the Nutrition Facts label, FDA wants to make it easier than ever for consumers to make better informed food choices that will support a healthy diet," says Michael R. Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. "To help address obesity, one of the most important public health problems facing our country, the proposed label would drive attention to calories and serving sizes."
Instead of including the current "calories from fat" information displayed on labels, the redesigned information will now focus on the total calories found in each serving.
The current labeling information also does not break down how much of the sugar in a food product is naturally occurring and how much has been added, so this will be more clear in the new labeling.
Some studies have reported that many Americans are consuming more sugar than they are aware of. The FDA believe shoppers will find more detailed sugar information useful, although added sugar is chemically the same as naturally occurring sugar.
The American Heart Association guidelines recommend a daily limit of about 9 teaspoons of sugar a day for men and about 6 teaspoons for women.
Also due a refresh are the daily values for sodium and dietary fiber. These will move in line with new recommended daily limits. An example of this is the lowered 2,300 mg limit for sodium, which is down from the previous suggested limit of 2,400 mg per day.
Under the new proposals, it will be compulsory for the new labels to display information on vitamin D, potassium, calcium and iron. This is because research has shown that many Americans do not consume enough of the necessary amounts of vitamin D to maintain good bone health.
Image credit: FDA
New labeling and marketing rules are an effort to drive down obesity
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a third of Americans are obese. Some studies have reported that people who pay more attention to labels eat healthier, so the hope is that more informative labeling will contribute to halting an obesity epidemic.
The good news is that recent CDC data suggests the trend of obesity in the very young is beginning to slow down.
To bolster this, further changes have been announced that address how food is marketed to children. Sugary and unhealthy food aimed at children will now have to pass a set of "Smart Snacks in School" standards before they can be marketed in schools.
Both the labeling and marketing changes have been greeted enthusiastically by first lady Michelle Obama, founder of the "Let's Move!" campaign that promotes healthy eating in children.
The first lady says in a press release:
"You as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it's good for your family. So this is a big deal, and it's going to make a big difference for families all across this country."
Written by David McNamee