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Proposed food labelling rules could have global impact

28 February 2014

Michelle Obama has announced a series of proposed changes to US labelling regulations that seek to address the fact that average serving sizes used to calculate calorie intake have lost track with the reality of modern appetites.

According to the First Lady, this will be ‘the new norm for providing consumers with the information they need’.

“We first launched ‘Let’s Move’ four years ago,” said Obama, “and all of us here today were driven by a simple belief: that parents deserve to have the information they need to make healthy choices for their kids. This isn’t a particularly radical idea; in fact, it seems pretty obvious. But the truth is that too often, it’s nearly impossible to get the most basic facts about the food we buy for our families.”

If the alterations are adopted, drinks companies, for example, would no longer be able to treat a 20oz bottle of soda as containing 2.5 servings of 8oz each for the purpose of labelling estimated calorie levels. Instead, both 12oz cans and 20oz bottles would each have to be treated as a single serving, and the calorie estimate displayed prominently on the label will increase by 50% or 150% accordingly.

In total, the new changes proposed will affect 27 of the 157 product categories governed by portion rules. In some categories, serving sizes will go down. Average consumption levels of yoghurts, for example, have typically shrunk from 8oz servings to 6oz servings, according to FDA research, and the labelling would change to reflect that.

But in most cases, serving sizes will jump. A portion of ice cream, for instance, would now be measured as a cup, rather than half a cup. Health officials hope the move will encourage consumers to take a more sober look at their eating habits.

Mrs Obama told the audience of public health officials and food industry executives at the White House that the new proposals would be open to consultation in the coming months, but made clear she expected significant change.

Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, said the scale of the US ‘obesity epidemic’ made it imperative that the guidelines were updated. Obesity in children trebled between the 1970s and 2005, and officials estimate nearly half of Americans could be obese by 2020 if trends continue. But Sebelius claimed recent data showing a drop in obesity among pre-schoolers was ‘a sigh that our efforts are beginning to work’.

Obama continued: “We are starting to see some changes but we are nowhere near the end of this road.” FDA officials acknowledge that the move may prove controversial for some in the food industry, whose lobbyists have long fought efforts to tighten labelling rules, and industry ‘stakeholders’ will be invited to comment before the FDA can proceed.

An even bigger fight with the food industry is expected over proposed changes to how sugar levels are displayed on packaging.

Under the plans, manufacturers would be forced to estimate how much extra sugar they have put into natural food products and to keep records for at least two years so they can prove the difference between natural and added sugars if challenged by the FDA.

There will also be tighter guidelines on displaying warnings about excessive salt content and more focus on minerals and vitamins that are deemed essential for a healthy diet. In general, the proposals aim to bring food labelling up to date with modern nutritional science and will shift the focus of labelling away from crude calculations of fat content and toward calorie levels, which will be displayed more prominently.

“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” said Obama. “So this is a big deal and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”

Among specific changes proposed to reflect scientific research over the last 20 years, the FDA wants to update daily values for nutrients like sodium, dietary fibre and vitamin D. It will also require manufacturers to declare the amount of potassium and vitamin D on the label, because they are deemed new ‘nutrients of public health significance’.

Calcium and iron would continue to be required, and vitamins A and C could be included on a voluntary basis.

The FDA also said that while it would continue to require ‘total fat’, ‘saturated fat’, and ‘trans fat’ on the label, ‘calories from fat’ would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.

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