U.S. Food Labels to Get First Update by FDA in 21 Years

Food labels that help U.S. shoppers decipher nutrition content are set to get their first makeover in 21 years.

The changes include updates to the nutrition facts panel on most foods sold in grocery stores and a revision to serving sizes, according to an online summary of two proposals the Food and Drug Administration sent to the White House for review. The full details of the draft regulations can’t be viewed yet by the public, and the FDA declined to comment on its plans.

The government is largely playing catch-up as the nation’s eating habits, food trends and advancements in obesity research have evolved since 1993, when food labels bearing basic calorie counts and fat grams became standard. The new labels will likely make calories more prominent, differentiate between natural and added sugars and make serving sizes more realistic.

“There wasn’t much supersizing 20 years ago,” Walter Willett, the nutrition department chairman at Harvard University’s School of Public Health in Boston, said in a telephone interview. “The world is changing about us and the nutrition facts panel hasn’t kept up.”

The Obama administration has pushed for uniform nutrition labels in an effort to reduce the U.S. obesity rate, which has more than doubled since 1980 to 78 million people in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Food Industry

The food industry began a voluntary front-of-package labeling system in 2011 in response to first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity and the FDA’s push for more accurate nutritional data. Making calories more prominent and eliminating the line listing calories from fat may be useful for consumers, said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose members include Kraft Foods Group Inc. and General Mills Inc.

“The public health perspective that led to the nutrition facts panel in the early 1990s has shifted over the past 20 years, away from total fat and fatty acids and toward calories,” Kennedy said in an e-mail.

He declined to comment on any of the other changes since they aren’t public.

PepsiCo Inc. representatives met Jan. 8 with FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor and Jennifer Leighton, a senior science adviser at the agency, according to the FDA’s public calendar.

March Deadline

Jeff Dahncke, a spokesman for Purchase, New York-based Pepsi, declined to comment on the meeting.

Draft regulatory proposals by the FDA are first sent for review to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, a procedure that is supposed to be completed within 90 days. The FDA isn’t able to speculate on an exact timeframe, Theresa Eisenman, a spokeswoman from the agency, said in an e-mail.

Michael Jacobson, executive director at the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, anticipates the FDA may make the proposals public by March 20. He said that in addition to calories, the FDA may tinker with some daily values, including those for sodium, that tell consumers how much of the recommended amount of nutrition they’re consuming.

The recommended limit now is 2,400 milligrams per day while the CDC reduced sodium intake guidelines to 2,300 milligrams a day to as low as 1,500 milligrams per day for people 51 years and older and black people of any age and those with high blood pressure or diabetes, about half the population.

Serving Sizes

“There will be some impact on consumers choosing one brand versus another and there’ll also be some impact on companies that will try to come below a certain line to bring down the sodium, and that will help people whether or not they read the label,” Jacobson said.

The most significant changes will be to serving sizes, said Robert Post, chief science officer at FoodMinds, a Chicago-based consultant group for the food, beverage and nutrition industries.

“We know that the quantities of food, the sizes of packages, and the actual amounts people are eating have changed in the last 20 years so it’s about time that we recognize we need new food intake data to work with,” Post, formerly the associate executive director of the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, said in a telephone interview.

The share of people who say they often use food labels rose to 54 percent in 2008 from 44 percent in 2002, the FDA said on its website.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.