DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a makeover of the nutrition labels we see on the back and side of food packages. You know, these are the black and white squares that tell us exactly how many calories or grams of fat we're taking in per serving. Well, today at the White House the first lady is expected to unveil some major changes to what we see in that label. NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us to give us some details in the studio. Good morning, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, David.
GREENE: OK. So these nutrition labels, nothing new. I mean people who watch and are conscious about their health, they've been looking at these things for years. They're part of weight loss programs. Kids learn...
AUBREY: Right. Exactly.
GREENE: ...about them in school.
GREENE: I mean is there a problem with these labels that they're trying to address?
AUBREY: Well, you know, one of the criticisms of this label is that it's confusing in part because there's just so much information here, and it doesn't help draw attention to the one or two things we're all being told to pay more attention to.
GREENE: You see all those numbers and you're like, I'm going just going to look away...
You see all those numbers and you're like, I'm just going to look away.
AUBREY: That's right. So how about focusing our eyes on calories and portion sizes? If you look at this new mockup I've got here, of the proposed labels, the calories go right to the top - it's in big, bold print here. Your eyes...
GREENE: Oh, it's huge. It's says calories 230, bam.
AUBREY: Right, that's right. Your eye just jumps there. And, you know, the folks at the FDA say this is point; counting calories or at least being aware of them is one of the most effective, simplest things we can do to control their weight. So the thought is: Hey, you know, let's make it the focus.
GREENE: You have a big pint of ice cream in the studio...
AUBREY: I do.
GREENE: ...which I know probably isn't good for me. I mean, do I look at the label to know that? Or what's the deal?
AUBREY: Well, if you look closely here, what you'll see is that it says 120 calorie per serving. Now, that doesn't sound too bad, right?
AUBREY: I mean but the serving size is a half cup. I mean it wouldn't even fill half of this mug here and it'd be up to a half cup, so most of us eat a lot more than a half cup. The new label will set a standard for the ice cream serving: one serving equals one cup, which is a lot closer to what we eat. And it's less likely that we'll delude ourselves into thinking that we're eating just 120 calories.
The same is true for a bottle of soda. Currently there might be two or two and a half servings in a bottle. The new label would require a 20 ounce bottle to list calories of the entire bottle as one serving. So you don't have to do the math and you'll know that the calorie count at the top is exactly what you're getting.
GREENE: Yeah, I just drink my bottle of Diet Coke. I don't...
AUBREY: You got zero calories there.
GREENE: Yeah, that's right. OK, so what are the changes that we are seeing? What other changes are we seeing here?
AUBREY: Well, take sugar. The current label only requires manufacturers to list total sugars, which makes it really, really difficult, almost impossible to tell how much sugar is naturally present in something like a yogurt, and how much has been added to the food by manufacturers. So the new proposal calls for a separate listing of added sugar. These are any of the refined sugars you'll hear about; anything from high fructose corn syrup to evaporated cane juice.
And this is something that nutrition advocates have really been pushing for. The food industry has sort of resisted. But the FDA says: Hey, look. The evidence is really solid. Excessive, you know, high sugar intake increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, other ailments, and it turns out that most of us are consuming just way too much of it.
GREENE: So, you bring up this evidence they've been looking at. I mean is that what's driving the changes here? Are they going after a certain segment of the population? I mean why now and who are they targeting?
AUBREY: Well, largely these changes are coming as a shift in nutritional science. I mean when this label was introduced in the early 1990s, there was a big emphasis on avoiding fat. Fat was the enemy in lots of people's eyes. But there's much more nuanced thinking now. There are good fats that we're supposed to getting more of, and bad fats we're told to limit. So if you look at this new label here, they have taken away the labeling of calories from fat - no mention of it. And that's because this is no longer thought to be helpful.
Now, in terms of the timing of this announcement, it's tied to the fourth anniversary celebration of the first lady's Let's Move Initiative, which has really helped to shine a spotlight on the nation's obesity problem and the need for Americans to change their eating habits. And just this week, the CDC published new data pointing to a drop in the obesity rate among very young children.
So there's a lot of, you know, optimism about this. And the administration sees the proposal like this, the new nutrition label, as a tool to really sort of how people who are trying hard to make healthy choices when they're shopping.
I don't know about you but when I go to the grocery, I've often got one kid in the cart and one nagging me. So for moms like me, the idea of a really clear, simple label is really appealing.
GREENE: You can leave that ice cream here when you leave the studio.
GREENE: That's really OK.
AUBREY: OK. All yours, David.
GREENE: We've been talking about changes to food labels with NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks for coming in, Allison.
AUBREY: All right, thanks so much.
GREENE: And you're listening to her reporting on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.