On Thursday, First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled proposed tweaks to the Food and Drug Administration’s iconic nutrition label — the first update in more than two decades. Although consumer groups and public health experts are celebrating the news, it’s important to remember that the changes aren’t taking effect immediately. It will take at least another three years until the products in American grocery stores display a different label.
In a statement about the potential changes, Obama explained that they represent an important step toward combating obesity, one of her major areas of focus under her national “Let’s Move” program. “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,” she noted.
The FDA’s proposed labels integrate many of the suggestions that nutrition groups have been advocating for years. The calorie counts are bigger and easier to read, and the serving sizes will be updated to better reflect how much people actually tend to eat. Since the updated serving sizes will make the calories more accurate, Americans will have a better sense of how much they’re taking in. The labels also add a new line for “added sugars,” in an effort to inform Americans about the refined sugars that food manufacturers are adding to their products. Via the New York Times, compare them side by side:
Thursday’s news was largely met with praise from public health officials, who are pleased that the government is finally implementing some of their suggestions. “I’ve been hoping for years that the FDA would list added sugars. I definitely think it’s helpful,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, told NPR. Dr. David Kessler, who oversaw the FDA back when nutrition labels were first created, called the move a “critically important” advance in public health.
But we’re still a few years off from actually putting it in place. The FDA will solicit comments about its two different proposed labels during a 90-day public comment period. Then, the government agency will work to draw up the final rules. After the rule is finalized, food manufacturers will have an additional two years to bring their labels in line with it.
The process could stretch out longer if there’s a protracted fight over the proposed regulation. There are already some signs that food and beverage groups will be resistant to new labels. A spokesperson from the Grocery Manufacturers Association has repeatedly emphasized that it will be expensive to implement. Nestle has predicted that the FDA’s new proposal will be “wildly controversial.”
Thanks to industry lobbying and pressure, the FDA is often slow to make meaningful policy changes to safeguard public health. For instance, the agency has been in the process of deciding whether to investigate an anti-bacterial chemical, triclosan, for over four decades. Congress first passed a law requiring the FDA to set guidelines for regulating the use of triclosan back in 1972 — but those rules still have not yet been finalized. Meanwhile, the chemical has been added to everything from toothpaste to kids’ toys.
Not every nutrition expert has such a glowing review for the proposed labels. Christopher Waldrop, the director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute, told Reuters that it’s “hard to parse the impact of the nutrition facts label.” Barry M. Popkin, a health researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the New York Times that it’s a “false victory” because only a small number of Americans actually regularly use nutrition labels. The research is mixed about whether nutrition labels can actually have a meaningful impact on consumer behavior, although most public health officials agree they couldn’t hurt as one piece of a larger strategy to tackle obesity.
There’s also a question about whether the proposed tweaks go far enough to change the existing labels. In 2011, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism partnered with Good Magazine to solicit creative submissions for a new nutrition label. Some of the contestants relied on a fairly traditional template, but used color coding and graphics to make the labels easier to understand. The first-place winner had a much more conceptual design that rethinks the way that Americans process information on labels in the first place.