New proposed nutrition labels will make it easier to determine how much added sugar is in your favorite ice cream or yogurt. The US Food and Drug Administration unveiled its planned new label on Thursday. It requires manufacturers to reveal how much sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other caloric sweeteners they’re adding to their products.
While this new label isn’t dramatically different from the old one, there are some upgrades (such as larger bolder calorie counts, more emphasis on percent daily values, and serving sizes) that reflect what we actually consume.
“For example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda, typically consumed in a single sitting, would be labeled as one serving rather than as more than one serving,” reads the latest information on the FDA’s website. Two-liter bottles of Coke or a one-pound bag of chips would need to have per package calorie counts—for those inclined to binge—as well as per serving amounts.
“Information about serving sizes and calories really jumps out at you much more than before,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg during a White House briefing Thursday morning. While such changes, she added, will “help in improving public health” by reducing the risk of chronic diseases, “they won’t magically change how Americans eat.”
This is the first time the nutrition label has been updated in two decades when they last underwent a dramatic overhaul. Some of the nutritional science has changed since then, Hamburg pointed out. For example, dietary fat is no longer the villian it was once thought to be, which has led the FDA to eliminate limits on total calories from fat. The label continues to highlight the amounts of saturated fats and trans fats in a product since both of those have been associated with increased heart disease risks.
“Unless you had a thesaurus, microscope, calculator, and degree in nutrition, you were out of luck,” trying to understand the old labels, said First Lady Michelle Obama during the briefing. “You as a parent should be able to walk into the grocery store read a label and know whether it’s good for your family.”
Nutrition experts were hoping that the FDA would include added sugars on the new label and applauded the inclusion by the FDA. That’s because eating too much sugar has been linked to a variety of health ills, including a higher risk of heart disease.
But some also criticized the agency for not going far enough. The American Heart Association said in a statement Thursday that it plans to work with the FDA “to highlight the increased benefits from further sodium reductions, and to advocate for stronger action.”
The FDA lowered the Daily Value for Sodium to 2,300 milligrams, the amount recommended in the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but the heart organization would like to see the recommended intake lowered to 1,500 milligrams to reflect the majority of Americans who need to be on a reduced sodium diet to lower blood pressure or reduce heart risks.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nutrition advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he would like to see a daily value added for the amount of added sugar Americans should limit themselves to consuming each day.
CSPI recommends a Daily Value of 25 grams—about six teaspoons or 100 calories—far less than the 23 teaspoons the average American now consumes.
Health groups can’t agree on how much we should limit added sugars. The Institute of Medicine recommends that added sugar represent less than 25 percent of total calories, the World Health Organization recommends less than 10 percent, and the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to fewer than 100 calories daily for women and 150 calories daily for men.
Current food labels include total sugar content, rather than added sugar, which can be very confusing. Fat-free milk, for example, has 12 grams of sugar listed on its label—but it’s all milk sugar, and none of it is added—so nutritionists say we don’t need to count it in our daily sugar tally.
Don’t expect to see those new labels just yet. The FDA will gather comments on its proposed rule -- estimated to cost manufacturers $2 billion to implement -- for the next 90 days before issuing its final rule, which could take another year. Food manufacturers will then have two years to comply.
Deborah Kotz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.