WASHINGTON — The ubiquitous nutrition label on food packages is about to get its first overhaul in 20 years, a change that is likely to have a dramatic effect on what people choose to eat and drink and what products sell on supermarket shelves.
Obama administration officials say the update, unveiled Thursday at a White House event, is necessary to keep pace with the science of nutrition and to reduce confusion about what qualifies as healthful food.
The new label, which could take a year or more to appear on store shelves, includes more than half a dozen significant changes — such as more prominent calorie counts and more realistic serving sizes — that advocates see as key in fighting the country’s obesity epidemic. Years of research show that tracking calories may be more important than tracking fat consumption when it comes to your health.
The nutrition facts panel, found on roughly 700,000 products, is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate for the food industry. More than half of Americans use it regularly to decipher what’s in the packaged food they are buying.
“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,” Michelle Obama said in a statement. The first lady has dedicated the past four years to childhood health issues with her Let’s Move campaign.
Controversy over sugar
The Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry groups have said they are committed to working with the administration to help Americans make better diet choices. As the new labels were being developed, however, they expressed strong objections to some of the FDA’s ideas, especially the addition of a line for “added sugars.”
The current label includes the amount of sugar in the product but does not differentiate between sugar that is present naturally and corn syrup or other added substances.
Food industry groups have said that natural sugar and added sugar are chemically identical and that the body doesn’t differentiate between the two, so it makes little sense to break them out in this manner on labels.
Health advocates have pointed out that Americans consume too much sugar.
“Sugar that the companies put in, whether it’s corn syrup, table sugar, maple syrup, is nutritionally void. Period,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University.
Among the most prominent changes for consumers may be the updates to serving sizes.
Consumers have long been confused about why a can of sweetened tea contains 2.5 servings, a single muffin is two servings or a serving of breakfast cereal is three-fourths of a cup.
Advocates of this change say that people will no longer have to do a lot of math to understand how many calories they are consuming. Of the 157 food types that are currently covered, the Food and Drug Administration is proposing to change the serving size for 17 percent of them. For instance, the serving size for ice cream, now half a cup, would become one cup.
Other changes include adding “per package” information in addition to “per serving” information and substituting potassium and vitamin D on the labels for vitamins A and C. Research has shown that most Americans get enough vitamins A and C but are lacking in potassium and vitamin D.
The monetary stakes are enormous: The administration estimates that the relabeling could cost the industry $2 billion to implement but will result in $20 billion to $30 billion in health care savings and other benefits over 20 years.
Under law, the FDA is required to take public comments on the proposal for 90 days. The agency will then review the feedback and could make modifications. This process could take a year or longer. Once the final rule has been issued, the agency will give companies two years to change their package labeling.
The food industry could lobby Congress to require additional studies or could portray labeling as an economic issue affecting jobs or food prices, which could make the process even longer.
Stuart Pape, a senior partner at the lobbying and law firm Patton Boggs who represents food companies, said there is an argument to be made for moving slowly.
“It’s not as simple of a proposition as it might appear. We are not just changing the presentation of information. It also affects marketing, pricing. It is about as far-reaching in the food industry as one can envision,” Pape said.
On that point, advocates of the changes agree. David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who fought for the law mandating the original labeling in 1990, said the announcement of the update was a major victory for public health.
“It creates incentives for the industry to create better products. No one wants their products to look bad on the labels,” he said.
Health advocates who have been asking for the changes for over a decade said that they were generally pleased with the FDA proposal but that more work remains to be done.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he feels it is also important to provide information about caffeine content and the percentage of whole grains, and that labels listing ingredients — which are often printed in tiny type — are also due for a makeover.
The FDA did not pursue a more radical front-of-the-package labeling approach that has been embraced in other countries, was recommended by two reports from the Institute of Medicine and was called a “top priority” in 2009 by commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
In recent years, some countries, such as Australia, Britain, Sweden and Denmark, have adopted at-a-glance labels for the front of packages that give consumers a sense of the overall healthiness of a food product, using things like star ratings, traffic-light colors or numerical scales.