White House, FDA Propose Updates to Nutrition Facts Label

Would adjust serving sizes to reflect how people eat, require information on "added sugars"

Michelle Obama Nutrition Labels

Michelle Obama

WASHINGTON -- First Lady Michelle Obama joined Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and food personality Rachael Ray at the White House to announce proposed revisions to the Nutrition Facts label. The proposed label would replace out-of-date serving sizes to better align with the amount consumers actually eat, and it would feature a fresh design to highlight key parts of the label such as calories and serving sizes.

The Nutrition Facts label is found on approximately 700,000 products.

"Our guiding principle here is very simple: that 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," said Michelle Obama (click here to read the full transcript of her remarks).

Some of the FDA's proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label:

  • Require information about the amount of "added sugars" in a food product. Based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans determination that calorie intake from added sugar is too high in the U.S. population and should be reduced. The FDA proposes to include "added sugars" on the label to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product.
  • Update serving-size requirements to reflect the amounts people currently eat. What and how much people eat and drink has changed since the serving sizes were first put into place in 1994. By law, serving sizes must be based on the portion consumers actually eat, rather than the amount they "should" be eating.
  • Present calorie and nutrition information for the whole package of certain food products that could be consumed in one sitting or in multiple sittings.
  • Refresh the format to emphasize certain elements, such as calories, serving sizes and percent daily value, which are important in addressing current public health problems like obesity and heart disease.

Ice cream, which can now have labels listing half a cup as the average serving, would have to list it as a full cup on the new label, and "the calorie declaration will reflect that," an administration official told The Wall Street Journal.

The proposed labels, produced by the FDA with input from industry and consumer groups, are not slated to take effect for at least two years. Industry groups are expected to push for changes, and the proposal is open to a 90-day comment period before being finalized.

Nutritional labels have remained essentially unchanged since 1994, except for an addition in 2006 of heart-risky trans fats, which appear in some prepared baked goods and microwave popcorn, but have been phased out by many companies in recent years.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) said it looks forward to helping with the proposed changes. "It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science," the group's president and CEO, Pamela Bailey, said in a statement. "Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers."

Consumer advocates have been pushing for changes in what counts as a "serving size," saying the estimates that are now used are misleading in that they are smaller than what people actually eat in one sitting. For example, soft-drink portions are often listed as eight ounces, which means a 20-ounce soda would represent 2-1/2 servings. In the proposed label, administration officials said, a 20-ounce drink would now list that as one serving.

Industry analyst Robert Dickerson of Consumer Edge Research told the Journal that he suspects the food companies may argue that if they have to list a whole bag of chips or bottle of soda as one serving, they would reduce the size, and food in smaller packages is more expensive per ounce, so it ultimately takes away value from consumers.

Food companies--especially soda, ice cream and dessert makers--are expected to take issue with the distinction of "added sugars" on the nutrition label, the report said. They contend there is no way to distinguish added sugar from natural sugar in testing they conduct to ensure the accuracy of labels.

Food makers also are expected to push back against having to change their serving sizes, or add a column for nutrition facts for the whole package on larger packages, also part of the proposed changes. Making calories and other key facts more prominent also could create an industry backlash if it requires the label to take up any more real estate on the food packages, industry experts told the newspaper.