Today, First Lady Michelle Obama -- known for her role in the Let's Move! campaign -- announced the Food and Drug Administration's proposed changes to The Nutrition Facts label. These are the first changes to the familiar black-and-white informational text box since its inception in 1993. And they couldn't have arrived any sooner.
Below is a summary of the proposed changes (see a comparison of the current and proposed label here and the complete document here):
-- In around 17 percent of packaged food products , serving sizes would grow. For instance, the serving size for ice cream will double, from a miniscule half cup to one full cup.
-- The font used to display calorie counts would be larger and bolder.
-- The term "calories from fat" would be removed.
-- Added sugars would be listed separately.
-- Listing potassium and vitamin D would be required (these two nutrients replace vitamin A and vitamin C, which would become optional).
-- Products with multiple servings that are commonly consumed in one sitting (think a 20-ounce soda) would have dual columns: one with "per serving" calorie and nutrition information and another with "per package" information.
-- The daily value listed for sodium would go down by 100 milligrams.
-- The daily value listed for fiber would go up by around four grams.
-- "Percent of daily value" information would appear to the left, rather than the right of the food label.
These changes are undoubtedly a victory for health advocates. As First Lady Michelle Obama put it: "This is a big deal, and it's going to make a big difference for families all across this country." They could also create a crisis for the food industry.
Despite public claims of support, insiders say the food industry is largely unhappy. A longtime food company consultant told Politico that these changes are "sort of a laundry list of everything the industry didn't want." These sweeping changes may also explain why the formal announcement of "Nutrition Facts 2.0" was left to Michelle Obama, who has often been seen as friendly to the food industry and continues to stay away from controversy.
"As someone who has been critical of Mrs. Obama and skeptical of her role in making this announcement, now I see why," said Michele Simon, president of Eat Drink Politics, via email. "It was to help insulate a beleaguered FDA from the mountain of anger that's soon coming its way from industry. While we have a big fight ahead, especially on added sugars, today the federal government is actually doing the right thing."
The inclusion of potassium may seem odd to some, but as a dietitian, I am thrilled. One of the tell-tale signs that food has undergone significant processing is that its potassium content has been slashed. In fact, the more processed a food is, the higher its sodium content and the lower its potassium tends to be. Now, consumers will able to see this for themselves at a single glance.
As exciting as these proposed changes are, the real entertainment will be watching the food industry do everything in its power to prevent some of these changes from taking hold over the course of the 90-day comment period
It's encouraging to see added sugar listed separately. Unlike the naturally occurring sugars found in fruit and some dairy products (which come bundled with nutrients), added sugar contributes empty calories. Yet, despite mountains of evidence showing the many harms of added sugar, Big Food executives continue to turn a blind eye to the facts. Fortunately, it seems the food industry will have an uphill battle trying to get added sugars off the food label (NPR reports that "despite industry opposition to the listing of added sugars, [FDA] officials say they're confident the science is strong enough to justify adding it to the label").
The only thing I'd add to the new labels: A daily value percentage next to added sugar to drive the point home even further. The American Heart Association, for example, has established a limit of 24 grams of added sugar a day for adult women and 36 grams of added sugar for adult men (based on daily caloric recommendations, which are slightly higher for men).
Alternately, the FDA could use the World Health Organization's "no more than 10 percent of calories" recommendation, which would cap added sugar consumption at 50 grams for a daily intake of 2,000 calories. While that is still high -- at just over 12 teaspoons -- it is nevertheless around half of what the average American takes in each day. It's also worth noting that WHO is considering lowering its recommendations to "no more than five percent of calories."
I also would have liked to see some changes to the format of the ingredient list, mainly having all sugar lumped together (rather than having multiple forms of added sugar listed throughout, deceptively making it seem like sugar is not a prominent ingredient). But the change that is first on my wishlist is information on what percentage of the total product each individual ingredient contributes (e.g., does oat flour make up 70 percent of this cereal, or just 15 percent?).
And while the changes to the actual food label are certainly worth celebrating, I would also change the framework behind them to focus on quality as well as quantity.
In a release to the media late last night, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, Michael Taylor, said that, "to help address obesity, one of the most important public health problems facing our country, the proposed label would drive attention to calories and serving sizes."
Instead of focusing solely on obesity, let's shift to a framework focused on health -- and make this a conversation about quality of calories, not simply the number.
None the less, these food label changes -- especially the removal of "calories from fat" and the addition of added sugars -- can be a great springboard for a much-needed national conversation about the many health challenges of highly processed foods.
What's next? After the 90-day comment period, FDA will make its final ruling, giving food companies two years to implement the label changes. Let the games begin!
This article originally appeared in Civil Eats.