Feb. 28, 2014 -- The time is past due for an overhaul of the ''Nutrition Facts'' labels on food products, according to the FDA, which unveiled its proposed changes on Thursday.
The most talked-about changes to the labels are that they would:
- Show the number of calories in bigger, bolder type
- Update serving sizes to reflect what is typically eaten
- List added sugars separately from natural sugars
Now, the proposal enters the typical 90-day period for comments before a final ruling is made.
Industry groups said Thursday they will work with the FDA. "For 20 years, the Nutrition Facts panel has been an invaluable tool to help consumers build more healthful diets for themselves and their families, and the time is right for an update," said Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
WebMD asked two experts to explain what the changes would mean -- and why they may help shoppers make better nutrition choices.
What are the biggest changes?
''I think the biggest is the serving size, especially if it moves to something more realistic," says Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. That could be behavior-changing, she says.
Take, for example, a package of candy with two pieces that are not individually wrapped. "If you buy a two-pack of candy, it may say the serving size is one,'' Diekman says. "And who eats just one?"
So a shopper may look at the calorie label, figure it's for the whole package -- not one serving -- and end up eating double or triple the calories they think they're having.
Under the new labels, food that could be eaten in one sitting should give calorie and nutrition information for the whole package.
Why the focus on listing added sugars?
Calling out the added sugars has been a point of discussion among nutrition experts for a while, Diekman says. "Natural sugars, like milk sugars and fruit sugars, provide health benefits. Many people don’t know natural sugars exist."
The main reason for singling out added sugars is concern that most Americans eat too much of it, Diekman says. Some experts say it is helping to drive the obesity epidemic.
Seeing the amount of sugar added to a product would help people compare, she says.
"Suppose you pick up a yogurt that says 20 grams of sugar, and the one next to it has 25. But one only has 5 grams of added sugar, and let's say the other has 10 grams of added sugar." That information could help you pick the product with less added sugars, she says.
"My concern is that no single nutrient is the cause of obesity," Diekman says. "It's a much more complex issue than blaming a single nutrient. We learned that with fat, with carbohydrates.''
Why did the FDA make the changes?
Today’s labels reflect eating habits and nutritional information from the 1970s and '80s, says Shelley Wishnick of the Friedman Diabetes Institute at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York. “It’s time to be more realistic and reflect the portion sizes of what Americans are eating today.”
Should people adjust their portion size because of the new labels?
“Even though the portion sizes are being adjusted to reflect American diets, it doesn’t mean we should be eating larger portion sizes,” Wishnick says. She says it’s important to also eat foods that don’t have labels -- such as fruit and vegetables -- as part of a balanced diet.
How would the new labels help shoppers?
The label changes are a start, but the changes have to go hand-in-hand with explanations about what they mean and why the information is helpful, Diekman says.
"What we have to make sure of is that education accompanies this new label, so people understand it's not about good, bad, avoid, consume," she says. "It's about balance."
When would the new labels go into effect?
After the 90-day comment period, the FDA will issue a final ruling. They hope to complete that process within a year. Manufacturers will have 2 years to get the new labels on packages.
What percent of shoppers read nutrition labels?
About 54% of shoppers check out the nutrition label when buying a product for the first time, according to a 2008 FDA survey of 2,500 people.
Diekman reports receiving honoraria from advisory-board-work for the California Walnut Board, National Dairy Council, Aspartame Advisory Panel, and Facts Up Front.