Nutrition labels have been required on packaged food for two decades, in order to help consumers better understand the nutritional values of foods and therefore make more healthy choices for themselves and their families.

On February 27, 2014, the FDA proposed an update for these nutrition labels in order “to reflect the latest scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease.”

The release was announced at a White House event by First Lady Michelle Obama, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

The proposed updates reflect new dietary recommendations, consensus reports, and national survey data, such as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nutrient intake recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, and intake data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).  The FDA also considered extensive input and comments from a wide range of stakeholders.

The First Lady has been active in bringing about this change and is a collaborator on this project.  One of Mrs. Obama’s initiatives has been the “Let’s Move” campaign to help address childhood obesity.  It has four pillars: (1) offering parents the tools needed to make better decisions about their children’s nutrition, (2) getting healthier foods into schools, (3) improving the accessibility and affordability of healthy foods, and (4) increasing physical activity by increasing opportunities for kids to play and move.

This proposed labeling change will help achieve the first pillar.  Michelle Obama issued the following statement: “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…So this is a big deal and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”

The proposed label would now:

  • Require information about the amount of “added sugars” in a food product.  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that intake of added sugar is too high in the U.S. population and should be reduced.  The FDA proposes to include “added sugars” on the label to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product.
  • Update serving size requirements to reflect the amounts people currently eat.  What and how much people eat and drink has changed since the serving sizes were first put in place in 1994.  By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what people “should” be eating.
  • Present calorie and nutrition information for the whole package of certain food products that could be consumed in one sitting.
  • Present “dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrition information for larger packages that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings.
  • Require the declaration of potassium and vitamin D, nutrients of which some people in the U.S. population are not getting enough, which puts them at a higher risk for chronic disease.  Vitamin D is important for its role in bone health.  Potassium is beneficial in lowering blood pressure.  Vitamins A and C would no longer be required on the label, though manufacturers could declare them voluntarily.
  • Revise the Daily Values for a variety of nutrients such as sodium, dietary fiber, and Vitamin D. Daily Values are used to calculate the Percent Daily Value on the label, which helps consumers understand the nutrition information in the context of a total daily diet.
  • While continuing to require “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” on the label, “Calories from Fat” would be removed because research shows that the type of fat is more important than the amount.
  • Refresh the format to emphasize certain elements, such as calories, serving sizes, and Percent Daily Value, which are important in addressing current public health problems like obesity and heart disease.

To help consumers understand the proposed changes in the labeling practices, the agency provided the below infographics:

Norton Rose Fulbright's The Health Law Pulse

The changes proposed would impact all packaged foods except certain meat, poultry, and processed egg products, as those products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and not the FDA.  The FDA is also proposing to make corresponding updates to the Supplement Facts label on dietary supplements where applicable.

Critics of the labeling proposal say that the changes are not enough and that it is important to also provide information about caffeine content and the percentage of whole grains and that the ingredient listing is also due to be updated.  The nutrition labeling format has not been changed in eight years.

The last change occurred in 2006 when trans fats information had to be declared on the label.  This change prompted manufacturers to reduce partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main source of trans fats, in their products.  The agency recently took a stand against trans fats, issuing a preliminary determination that PHOs are no longer generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

The agency is accepting public comments on the proposed changes for 90 days.  It will then review the feedback and decide whether or not to make changes.  This process could take one year or longer.  Once the FDA issues a final rule, it will likely give companies two years to change their package labeling.

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