On the Table

Helpful ways to label packages

February 4, 2014 

FDA Nutrition Facts Label

Nutrition labels on the back of food packages may soon become easier to read. The Food and Drug Administration says knowledge about nutrition has evolved over the last 20 years, and the labels need to reflect that.

J. DAVID AKE — J. DAVID AKE - AP

There’s a facelift coming for food labels. It’s about time.

The Food and Drug Administration has announced it is working on new proposed rules for the nutrition facts and serving size information on food packages. The current label format has been in place since the regulation went into effect 20 years ago.

Prior to that, nutrition information on packaged and processed foods was voluntary. Before the late 1960s, nutrition labels were largely absent, since most meals were prepared from scratch at home.

Today, fresh produce and fish are still exempt from labeling rules.

Most people find food labels hard to decipher. Milligrams and grams of sodium, sugar and fat are hard to put into perspective.

And puny portion sizes set up a cycle of denial for many of us who are more likely to eat the entire package of chips or cookies.

It isn’t clear yet precisely what changes the FDA is going to recommend. But here’s my wish list, shared by many nutritionists:

• Per-serving and per-package calorie labeling. Sure, tell me how many portions you think the package contains, but also let me know how many calories I’ll get if I polish off the entire bag.

• User-friendly measures. It would mean much more to us if fat, salt and sugar were referred to by teaspoon as well as by milligrams or grams.

I can visualize six teaspoons of sugar in a bowl of cereal. Grams are harder to get a handle on.

• Added sugar. As it stands now, it’s impossible to discern naturally occurring sugars from added sugars in foods. A separate line for added sugars would help me evaluate the junk quotient of a product I’m considering.

• Percentage of whole grain. Instead of making me guess how much whole grain is in a product, express the amount as a percentage of the total grain in the product.

For example, a product made with 10 percent whole wheat wouldn’t impress me as much as one in which 75 percent of the grain was whole.

• Supersize the print. Otherwise I may need to start bringing a magnifying glass to the store.

To improve national nutrition literacy, we need food labels that are easier to read. It’s a change to look forward to this year.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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