April 4, 2014, 3:41 p.m.; Corrected June 12, 2014 11:08 a.m.
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The FDA is proposing several revisions to the nutrition labels on food packaging, including increasing the font size of calories and changing the serving size to reflect how much consumers actually eat in one sitting.
When the Food and Drug Administration unveiled its revision of the iconic Nutrition Facts label that appears on processed foods and beverages earlier this year, nutritionists and consumer groups applauded the changes. Even the food industry, which resisted the labels in the first place, greeted the news with a display of muted enthusiasm.
Since then, though, the industry has been reviewing the agency’s proposal, preparing to mount what will likely be a hefty pushback.
With the exception of an added line for trans fats, the label hasn’t undergone any major changes since Congress first approved it under the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. Since then, consumers — an estimated 65 percent of adults — have come to rely on the information it provides.
But the agency and nutritionists agree it needs an overhaul, reflecting changes in consumer habits and new nutrition science. The agency has been working on those changes for nearly a decade, publishing an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in 2003.
“After 20 years of this label, we’ve learned a lot and we know we can make improvements,” said Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, in a recent briefing with reporters.
The agency has to walk a fine line, however. “It’s a kind of loved icon,” said Burkey Belser, who designed the current label in the early 1990s, speaking at a recent panel discussion. “So I would suggest to FDA: Mess with it at your peril.”
One of the most notable proposed changes is an increase in the type size of the calories printed on the label, making the total calories much more prominent. That, nutritionists say, could inform consumers who are trying to trim calories and waistlines.
More importantly, perhaps, the agency is also proposing changes to serving sizes to reflect how much consumers actually eat in one sitting — known as the RACC, or reference amount customarily consumed.
For example, a 20-ounce soda will now be considered a single serving, so the calorie count on the label will reflect the entire bottle. Any product that’s less than two times the RACC can now be considered a single serving under the proposed changes.
“They’re saying anything up to 7.9 ounces would be considered a single serving,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “That’s important. That will stop a lot of deceptive information.”