US proposes major update to food labels in bid to combat obesity

US first lady Obama unveils proposed updates to nutrition facts labels during remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US first lady Obama unveils proposed updates to nutrition facts labels during remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Packaged foods sold in the United States would display calorie counts more prominently and include the amount of added sugar under a proposal to significantly update nutritional labels for the first time in 20 years as health officials seek to reduce obesity and combat related diseases such as diabetes.

The Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday its proposal would also ensure that the amount of calories listed per serving reflects the portions that people typically eat.

That change may result in per-serving calorie counts doubling for some foods such as ice cream.

First lady Michelle Obama, who has used her White House position to launch the "Let's Move" campaign to fight childhood obesity, announced the proposal alongside the FDA.

The principle behind the update is "very simple," she said in a statement. "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."

While the FDA already requires companies to list the amount of sugar in a product, the proposal requires them to list the amount of added sugar. Natural sugar is contained in fruits.

Added sugar includes corn syrup and concentrated juice as well as white and brown sugar.

The FDA, which has been discussing proposed label changes with the industry for nearly a decade, estimated the cost to industry of updating the labels will be about US$2 billion (S$2.53 billion) while the benefit to consumers is estimated at between US$20 billion to US$30 billion.

The updates would take about three years to take effect.

After a 90-day public comment period, the FDA will draw up final rules. Once finalized, companies will have two years to comply with the regulations.

When labeling was first introduced, companies fought it"tooth and nail," said Dr. David Kessler, who was commissioner of the FDA when the original labels were created. "They will certainly put up a fuss here, but at the end of the day they will learn to live with it and thrive and make better products because of it." The reaction from food makers was subdued.

The proposal comes days after a federal health survey showed a 43 per cent decline in obesity among children aged 2 to 5 years, though overall obesity rates remain unchanged.

Calories will be displayed in larger font, and consumers may get a wake-up call with proposed changes to serving sizes.

By law, serving sizes must reflect the amount consumers typically eat, yet serving sizes listed on many packaged goods often differ wildly from what people actually eat. A serving of ice cream, for example, is currently listed as half a cup. Yet few people stop there.

Under the FDA's proposal, a serving of ice cream would be a cup, doubling the calorie count and potentially giving consumers pause as they survey their options. The number of calories in a serving of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream, for example, would be about 660 instead of the current 330.

By contrast, the serving size for yogurt would fall from the current level of 8 ounces to the more commonly consumed 6 ounces, the FDA said.

In the case of packages that can be consumed in multiple sittings, such as family-sized bags of potato chips, manufacturers would have to provide two labels, one to show nutritional information "per serving" and the other to provide"per package" information.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the proposed label change reflects what "has been learned about the connection between what we eat and the development of serious chronic diseases impacting millions of Americans."

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