A New Look for Food Labels?

FDA panel proposes focus on calories

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Making healthy choices at the market can be a daunting task -- unless you're savvy about reading food labels. But some changes may be in the works that could make it easier to make healthy purchasing decisions.

In 1993, the U.S. government passed legislation requiring manufacturers to provide food labels that would help consumers better understand the nutritional qualities of the products they buy. And labels began carrying more complete and useful nutrition information than ever before.

Now, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has unveiled recommendations to alter food labels in an effort to give Americans more complete information about the calorie content of their diets.

In an effort to fight the nation's spiraling obesity problem, an FDA task force has suggested improving food labels by displaying calorie counts more prominently and listing meaningful serving sizes. It also recommended better government enforcement to ensure that labels are accurate.

Further, the panel recommended that restaurants keep serving sizes realistic and provide calorie information on their menus. And it proposed a "Calories Count" educational program to teach consumers about the importance of balancing calories in with calories out.

Over the years, some manufacturers have gotten quite clever at disguising calories. For example, a packaged snack food that most of us would consider a single serving may actually turn out to be two or three servings, if you read the label closely.

The FDA has asked manufacturers to make the label changes on a voluntarybasis -- at least for now. Let?s hope that enhanced regulations willresultin food labels that will be easily understood and trustworthy.

The Look of the New Label

Would consumers become more aware of how many calories they were consuming if calorie information was printed in larger and/or type darker on food labels? The FDA task force thinks it may help to highlight calories -- as well as to list the number of calories found in the entire package.

Another suggested change is that products that meet FDA criteria for "reduced-calorie" or "low-calorie" foods be allowed to carry health claims on their labels. For example, the label might say, "Diets low in calories may reduce the risk of obesity, which is associated with type II diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease." This could be a quick and easy way to identify foods lower in calories.

If these recommendations are implemented, they will join another recent labeling change. By January 2006, manufacturers will be required to list trans fat content on food labels. Along with the saturated fat and total fat content, this information can help consumers make heart-healthy choices.

Low-Carb Lowdown

Grocery shelves are lined with them, whole stores are devoted to them, restaurants have modified their menus to promote them, but what exactly is a "low-carb" food? There is no legal definition for this term (unlike the term "low fat," which is defined as 3 grams or less of fat per serving).

With the explosion in demand for low carbohydrate foods, the government needs to define the terminology so consumers can trust food and restaurant labels. The task force has suggested that the FDA define the terms "low-carbohydrate," "reduced-carbohydrate" and "carbohydrate-free" as well as "net carbs." Cross your fingers that this information arrives on your grocery shelf soon!

What to Look For on Labels

When I look at a label, I carefully check it for the information that I consider to be the most valuable. I do this once for most products, and the next time around I can just throw it into the grocery cart and get on with my shopping.

Here are the criteria I use to choose the most nutritious foods at the best price.

    1. Calories per serving
    2. Total grams of fat per serving
    3. Total grams of saturated fat per serving
    4. Amount and type of sugars per serving
    5. Amount of fiber per serving
    6. Sodium content per serving
    7. Any significant vitamin or mineral contribution?
    8. Does the product carry a health claim?
    9. The list of ingredients, so you know what is in the food
    10. Is the product enriched or fortified with nutrients?

Will Better Labels Mean Better Choices?

I applaud the new program, and I hope that simple changes in the food label will lead consumers to healthier choices.

Of course, you can lead a horse to water but you can?t make him drink! Surveys reveal that consumers already have a good awareness of eating properly and good nutrition. While they know that eating fewer calories and getting regular physical activity is good for you, many don?t follow this advice.

We can only hope that getting better information into the hands of consumers will encourage them to make wiser food choices, at home and at restaurants. According to Thompson, "Small steps to eat a more balanced diet and stay physically active can go a long way to reversing the obesity epidemic."

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