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.
The beverage industry has said it’s already made the shift. “We welcome many of their proposals, which are consistent with changes already implemented voluntarily by our members,” the American Beverage Association said in a statement. “Since 2010, beverage companies have shown calorie counts on the front of every bottle, can and pack they produce, and have labeled beverages up to 20 ounces as single servings on the [Nutrition Facts Panel].”
But other segments of the food industry aren’t likely to be as comfortable. The dairy foods industry, for example, will have to display calorie counts for a full cup of ice cream under the revised serving amounts, rather than the current half-cup requirement — not something producers necessarily want to highlight.
“We’re carefully looking at the database they used,” said Cary Frye of the International Dairy Foods Association, referring to the data the agency studied in determining the amount of food people typically consume.
Other changes include a lowering of the daily limit of sodium, from 2,400 milligrams to 2,300 milligrams, reflecting the current recommendation in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. Many consumer groups believe the figure should be lower — 1,500 milligrams — which is the current recommended maximum for people over the age of 50, African-Americans and those with high blood pressure.
Another notable proposed change is an additional line indicating added sugars, thought to boost intake of empty calories. The current Dietary Guidelines call for Americans to consume fewer added sugars. Under the proposal, companies will be required to keep records for two years showing how much sugar they add to products — something the industry will likely fight.
“Despite modern technology there’s no way to distinguish in apple sauce, say, the amount of sugar that comes from the apples and the amount of sugar the producer might add,” said Bruce Silverglade, a principal with OFW Law who worked to get the 1990 law passed. “I think there’s concerns throughout the industry.”
Other proposed changes include removing vitamins A and C from the label, and adding vitamin D, linked to improved bone density, and potassium, linked to prevention of hypertension. Both are considered “nutrients of public health significance.” Food manufacturers will still be able to list A and C voluntarily.
Jacobson said he felt the changes were generally positive. “I think it’s a real improvement over the current labels, and I think the controversy will be over sodium and added sugars.”
The agency, however, declined to set a daily value — or limit — for added sugars. Jacobson and others say that setting a daily limit for overall sugar consumption would provide a more meaningful measure for consumers.
Silverglade asked, “The concern about added sugar is really about calories, and if the basic tenet is to keep it simple, then why include added sugar at all given that they’re not setting a daily value for sugars?”
The agency has said the cost to the industry of updating the labels will run about $2 billion, but the new information could save $20 to $30 billion dollars over two decades from a “wide range” of benefits, largely related to health care.