The food industry reacted cautiously Thursday to proposed changes for nutrition labels, but industry watchers said businesses would likely work cooperatively with the Food and Drug Administration as it finalizes new rules in the coming years.
“We look forward to working with the FDA and other stakeholders as these proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label make their way through the rule making process," the Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement.
The measured response came after First Lady Michelle Obama and the FDA laid out the first changes to nutrition labels on food since they were first required two decades ago, with a greater emphasis on calories, added sugars and realistic serving sizes.
“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,” Obama said in a statement Thursday morning. “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”
The proposed changes have to go through a 90-day public comment period, and after that it will take at least a couple years of working with the industry for them to be finalized and enforced.
“The bottom line for the industry is that the consumer has to buy the product,” said Dr. Caroline Apovian, a spokeswoman at the Endocrine Society and an expert on obesity. “The industry is going to make as many changes as we want them to as long as the consumer buys it.”
The changes the FDA is proposing target issues nutritionists have been griping about for years. The new labels would provide more realistic serving sizes—the serving size for ice cream, for example, will be increased so that a pint is shown to hold about two servings instead of four, as it’s presented now. The adjusted serving size will increase the calorie count to about 400 calories per serving. The new labels would also inform consumers of how much sugar and sweetener have been added to products. Bonnie Liebman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that provision will probably face the most backlash from the businesses.
“The food industry doesn’t want to disclose added sugar because many products are high in added sugars and it makes those foods look bad,” she said.
One chocolate bar has about 77.4 calories from added sugar alone, according to the American Heart Association, and a can of soda has about 132 calories from added sugar per serving. “The fact is the average person wants to know how much sugar has been added to their yogurt,” Liebman said. “And right now you can’t tell.”
Constance Brown-Riggs, a spokeswoman at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said teaching consumers how to read the new labels will be critical, regardless of which changes are or aren't made.
“Even with the old Nutritional Facts Panel the one thing people miss is that it requires education,” she said. “The same will be true with the new label.”