Editorial: Label changes good for shoppers

Published Mar 1, 2014 at 12:01AM

You won’t find them next week, but sometime in the next few years you’re likely to see new nutrition labels on many of the foods you buy at the grocery store. Overall, the changes the federal Food and Drug Administration propose add up to more useful information for shoppers.

The FDA released its proposed new labels Thursday. The agency will receive public comments on the proposals for 90 days and could spend as much as a year tinkering with them based on the comments it receives.

After the changes are final, the food manufacturing industry will have two years to move to the new labels. The FDA estimates it will cost manufacturers about $2 billion to make the switch. That cost will be split among most of the roughly 30,000 food manufacturers in the U.S.

There are things to like about the proposed new labels.

Chief among them, the FDA has adjusted portion sizes to more closely reflect today’s reality. Currently, as one example, a pint of ice cream is considered four servings, each one a half-cup big. In reality, Americans are far more likely to split a pint between two people, consuming double the calories per serving the current label includes.

Too, total calories per serving will be easier to find, for the agency proposes putting them in large black type. It also will eliminate the “calories from fat” information, though grams of fat will be listed. There are, by the way, 9 calories in every gram of fat, 4 each in grams of carbohydrates and proteins.

Less useful is the information about “added sugar,” as opposed to sugar that occurs naturally in a food. Sugar is sugar once it’s swallowed, and the body does not distinguish among the types of sugar a person eats. We’d rather see percentages of whole grains on products that include flour and the like, though overall that’s a small point.

It will take years, of course, to decide if more realistic food labels have had an impact on American eating habits. Meanwhile, the more than half of shoppers in this country who use them will have available better information than they get today. That cannot be bad.