New Food Label Aims To Make Healthy Decisions Easier

The Food and Drug Administration and the White House are expected to unveil a new food label this week. Changed just once since their adoption, these labels need to be less confusing, advocates say.

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If you are confused about how to make healthy choices when you're shopping for food, you're certainly not alone. One of the problems is that food labels can be complicated and hard to read. The formal name for those labels is the standardized nutrition facts panel, and that panel may look different pretty soon. The Food and Drug Administration has made some updates. And as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, Michelle Obama is expected to introduce the new label later this week.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The label we're talking about is that familiar panel on the back of packaged foods that lists calories, fat, cholesterol, carbs, and protein. And it's no coincidence that the first lady is announcing some changes to it as part of the anniversary celebration of the Let's Move campaign. She's been using the power of the White House to tackle the nation's obesity problem. And in the view of many, the current nutrition labels don't help. Why is that?

Well, Burkey Belser, who designed the current label, says if you go back to the origins of food labeling, it was never really about getting people to limit calories. Not at all. In fact, when food makers took their first crack at labeling food after the Second World War, the mindset was much more about bulking up following a period of food rationing.

BURKEY BELSER: The original label was mostly built, by the way, around a diet of scarcity.

AUBREY: But fast-forward several decades, and it's a very different world, food is plentiful and, increasingly, Americans were beginning to worry about the links between things like cholesterol and heart disease, and sodium's role in high-blood pressure.

BELSER: So now, people needed to learn to take care in their diet.

AUBREY: And in 1990, Congress passed a law requiring standardized nutrition labels on foods, in part to reflect the advances in nutritional science. There was a clearer understanding of what we should be eating. And the aim was to help people make better choices. Now, the nutrition label that Belser designed, the one we still see on food packages today, did give calories top billing. But nearly 25 years later, with obesity as the top public health challenge, many experts say the label doesn't go far enough.

Greg Silverman, a nutrition educator with the group Share Our Strength, says people find it confusing.

GREG SILVERMAN: I think the calorie count and the serving size are the big issues that trick people up.

AUBREY: Take, for instance, a pack of ramen noodles. Silverman says it's easy to spot the calorie line. The one he picks up lists 300 or so calories per serving. But oftentimes, one package can have two or three servings.

SILVERMAN: Repeatedly, we find that people are assuming containers are individual portion and not realizing, oh, this is actually for two. And therefore, they're getting double the amount of sodium. They're getting double the amount of calories and not thinking through that.

AUBREY: There have been no shortage of suggestions on how to change the label, everything from simple recommendations such as highlighting the number of servings in a package to listing how much of your daily calorie quota of, say, a 2,000-calorie diet it'd use up if you eat that packet of ramen. But there are issues beyond just calories.

LAURA SCHMIDT: The average American is consuming about three times more sugar daily than would be recommended by expert panels.

AUBREY: That's Laura Schmidt of U.C. San Francisco. She says it's become much more clear how detrimental too much sugar can be. So some health advocates would like to see manufacturers be required to list how much sugar, including corn syrup, they add to foods. Since many items such as yogurts and cereals contain a mix of added and natural sugars, it's hard for consumers to know exactly what they're getting. It's an idea that the food industry has pushed back against, so you can bet that lots of industry insiders and health advocates are eager to see what label changes the first lady unveils.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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