March 14, 2014

How nutrition labels on food packages are changing

Food makers move some nutrition labels to the front of packages as government moves to update requirements for listing fat content and serving sizes.

Consumers will soon be getting more help making nutritional decisions when buying their food.

The Food and Drug Administration recently announced an update to the 20-year-old nutrition label on the side or back of packaged foods that emphasizes calories and sugars added during food production, while updating serving sizes. It’s the first change in the label since 2006 when trans fats were added to the label.

“This is good news for consumers,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “Updating the nutrition facts panel will provide consumers with more relevant and useful information about the foods they consume.”

Identifying added sugars on the label — a new feature — will help consumers better follow dietary guideline recommendations to reduce the intake of calories from sugars used to sweeten foods, Waldrop said. The new label distinguishes sugars that naturally occur in foods from those that are added. According to the FDA, Americans on average eat 16 percent of their daily calories from sugars added during food production.

“This change is a big deal because right now consumers don’t have that information,” Waldrop said. “The Institute of Medicine recommends reducing the intake of added sugars.”

Just as most food manufacturers reduced or eliminated trans fats in many products after trans fat was detailed on labels, nutrition advocates are hoping the same thing will happen with added sugars, Waldrop said.

Likewise, the portion size for many products will change. According to federal law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not what they “should” be eating, according to the FDA.

“Portion sizes should be average consumption, not recommended sizes,” Waldrop said. “Some products will see no difference in portion sizes, while others will see large calorie increases.”

For example, a pint of ice cream is now said to have four ½-cup servings. Under the new labeling, that would change to two one-cup servings, which would double the calories per serving. In the same way, a 20-ounce soda would be relabeled as one serving instead of 2.5 servings, increasing the calorie count dramatically. Portion sizes are determined by government studies, Waldrop said.

Another new piece of the FDA label is something that is being taken away: calories from fat would no longer be listed.

“The total fat calories are not as important a factor in nutrition as calories in general and other elements on the label,” Waldrop said. “We have found since the original label was created with calories from fat that this is not as much of a concern.” Total, saturated and trans fat numbers will still be required on the new label, however, he said.

The new label, which is in the midts of a 90-day open comment period right now, would not become a final rule for a year, and it would take as much as an additional year to be implemented, Waldrop said. .

In the meantime, the Grocery Manufacturers Association has started a new nutritional label campaign, displayed on the front of packages, called Facts Up Front. More than 50 of its food manufacturing members, including ConAgra and Nestle, are implementing this new label.

The basic Facts Up Front label lists calories and information about saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving. Additionally, manufacturers may include information on one or two nutrients like potassium, fiber, protein, vitamins A, C and D, calcium and iron.

In a recent Harris poll, more than nine in 10 grocery shopping decision makers agreed that putting nutrition facts on the front of packaging makes nutrition information easier to find and use and simple to understand.

“Our research tells us that more than two-thirds of shoppers read food labels, looking for information related to sodium content, sugar, fat and calories,” said Leslie Sarasin, president of the Food Marketing Institute. “Food retailers listen to their customers and the Facts Up Front program gives these shoppers the information they’re looking for in a convenient, easily accessible format.”

Among the 50-plus companies that have agreed to put nutrition information on the front of their packaging is Bimbo Bakeries, the Mexican owner of Mrs. Baird’s Bakery in Fort Worth. Other participating manufacturers include Kellogg, Kraft, Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kroger, Pepsi and Post.

But some manufacturers, like Frito Lay, have yet to join the campaign. The Facts Up Front labels are voluntary, Waldrop said

“One of the reasons the manufacturers created the front-of-pack labels was because the FDA was taking so long to address the issue,” he said. “But a lot of advocates are hoping the FDA looks at front-of-pack labeling so all packages will have a standard approach.”

Manufacturers using the front-of-package label report that 70 percent of their product portfolios on average are carrying the label, according to a spokeswoman. Many products with the label are already in stores, while the rest are making their way through distribution channels. Manufacturers are expected to complete implementation of the nutrition labels on the front of packages by year’s end.

The GMA said it welcomed the changes in the FDA-required food label, according to a statement by Pamela Bailey, president of the association.

“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,” she said. “Diets, eating patterns and consumer preferences have changed dramatically since the Nutrition Facts were first introduced. Just as food and beverage manufacturers have responded by creating more than 20,000 healthier product choices since 2002, and by providing tools like Facts Up Front front-of-pack labels, the FDA is responding with a thoughtful review of the Nutrition Facts panel.”

Advocates hope the new label will make us wiser consumers when picking out what goes on our plates at home.

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