Why Our Nutrition Labels Desperately Need An Update

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. David Ake

Later this week, the White House is set to unveil the first update to FDA-approved nutrition labels in more than two decades. Politico reports that First Lady Michelle Obama will announce the changes on Thursday, as part of her larger focus on encouraging healthy habits and tackling childhood obesity.

At the beginning of this year, the Food and Drug Administration indicated that updating nutrition labels would be a top priority for the agency in 2014. But officials didn’t confirm a timeline for rolling out the new requirements.

The move has the potential to impact a considerable number of Americans. A recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the number of people who rely on nutrition labels when they’re grocery shopping is on the rise. About 42 percent of working-age adults and 57 percent of older adults now say they consider the FDA’s label when they’re selecting their food — and nearly three fourths of all adults report they would use similar information in restaurants if it were available.

It’s particularly welcome news for food safety advocates, who have been pressuring the government to update its food labeling practices for years.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to nutrition and food policy, has repeatedly urged the FDA to “bring food labeling into the 21st century.” Back in 2010, the organization released a report entitled “Food Labeling Chaos” that detailed the lack of industry-wide regulations in this area to hold companies accountable. The report urged the agency to crack down on brands that made overreaching claims about their products, establish a consistent standard for the foods labeled as “natural,” and make several updates to the current nutrition labels.

CSPI’s report put forth several suggestions for improving nutrition labels — like displaying calories more prominently, dividing the information into different sections that are easier to read at a glance, adding the whole wheat content, and color-coding the ingredients that exceed Americans’ daily recommend levels:

food label change

CREDIT: Center for Science in the Public Interest

The current label relies on lettering and categories that can be hard to read, which means that consumers are often confused about what’s really important. Last year, a study conducted by the FDA’s own researchers confirmed that many Americans simply don’t understand how to interpret the label, especially if they’re trying to multiply ingredients to calculate larger serving sizes.

“A lot of foods that common sense dictates are a single serving size, like certain snacks and beverages, are listed as multiple servings,” Margo Wootan, CSPI’s director of nutrition policy, explained to Politico, pointing out that Americans don’t always realize how much they’re consuming. Many brands attempt to make their products look healthier by listing the nutrition facts for an artificially small serving size, like listing a bag of M&M’s as two servings instead of one, but that’s often misleading.

Although nutrition advocates haven’t yet been briefed on the FDA’s forthcoming announcement, they’re hoping that the agency will move to bring serving sizes in line with what Americans are actually eating. They’re also optimistic that the FDA will make calorie counts more visible. It’s still unclear whether the agency will take bolder steps, like requiring companies to list “added sugars” separately from natural sugars, in an attempt to inform Americans about how much artificial product is going into common foods.

The FDA is well aware of the issues with the current labeling system. “It’s important to keep this updated so what is iconic doesn’t become a relic,” Michael Taylor, the agency’s deputy commissioner for foods, acknowledged this week. Nonetheless, the process has been extremely slow, and the new nutrition labels have now been in the works for more than a decade.

That’s typical for the consumer safety agency, which often takes years to figure out how to regulate harmful substances like tobacco, trans fats, factory farm antibiotics, and untested chemicals. Largely because of industry lobbying and influence, the FDA is often notoriously slow to make meaningful policy changes.

Food labeling still has the potential to spark a fight. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is already wary of the forthcoming changes, emphasizing it hopes the FDA has scientific proof for overhauling the label standards. “Everyone in the industry is going to have to change their labels. It’s a very big deal. It’s very expensive,” GMA’s senior director of food labeling and standards noted.