On Thursday, the White House and FDA proposed improvements to the Nutrition Fact label, which hasn't undergone major changes in 21 years. The groups aim to make calories more prominent on the label, differentiate between added and natural sugar, reduce the recommend daily value of sodium and change the way the nutrition information is presented on some single-serving products.
First lady Michelle Obama supports the changes and said the following in a statement today: "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."
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Health groups like the American Cancer Society have already applauded the proposed changes. CEO John Seffrin said in a release that the changes will make it easier for Americans to choose healthier food when they’re shopping for groceries.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agrees. Academy president Dr. Glenna McCollum said in a statement that the move is "a big win for consumers" and "long overdue."
Actual edits to nutrition labels may take two years to implement, administration officials said. Proposed changes will be under a 90-day comment period for now.
What does it mean for you?
We asked registered dietitian Rachel Berman from About.com about the new labels.
What’s the most important change you would want to see?
I would love to see added sugar and natural sugar separated out. The truth of the matter is that added sugar is considered discretionary calories that we really need to monitor. Food items with added sugar are indicative of being more processed versus natural foods. It will be a way to quickly see that without having to read the ingredient label. That might be something that could be really helpful.
I also think we might see some other types of nutrients become mandatory. Potassium – a mineral necessary for cardiac function — is not mandatory. Americans are not getting enough potassium to maintain heart health. Too much can also be dangerous for some people. So I think that’s something that could be mandatory on the new label.
What are the most important numbers to look for on the nutrition label?
I think total calories per package and per serving. Fiber is really important. Americans are not getting enough so I think that’s important to watch out for. I would take a look at total fat. I don’t know if they will get rid of the percentage values. I kind of like it. I know that consumers don’t want to do too much math though. A quick way to see if it’s a lot is, if it’s more than 20 percent, it’s considered high for fat, and 5 percent or less is considered low. Maybe some kind of color coding could be more helpful than having people do math.
What are the problems with the current nutrition labels?
There is too much information. The nutrition food label really is a tool for change how we eat. The addition with trans fat to the label in 2003 is actually what drove people to stop eating so much trans fat. The label can be a really important tool for change. Color coding can make a big impact on consumers.
As a consumer the nutrition label often seems like it’s written in Russian. What are your best tips to reading it?
I think that people can get too absorbed in the numbers. The grams are confusing. Because you may not be weighing your food item, it may be hard to quantify how much a gram is. Instead of obsessing over how many grams you are supposed to be eating, simply use the numbers as a comparison when deciding between two products. For example, if you’re trying to get more fiber in your diet, choose the cereal with higher grams of fiber per serving.