WASHINGTON (AP) — Those nutrition labels on the back of food packages may soon become easier to read.
The Food and Drug Administration said that knowledge about nutrition has evolved over the past 20 years and that the labels need to reflect that.
As the agency considers revisions, nutritionists and other health experts have their own wish list of desired changes.
The number of calories should be more prominent, they say, and the amount of added sugar and percentage of whole wheat in the food should be included. They also want more clarity on how serving sizes are defined.
“There's a feeling that nutrition labels haven't been as effective as they should be,” says Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
For example, he says, most of the nutrients are listed in grams, the metric system's basic unit of mass. Jacobson said people don't really understand what a gram is.
Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said that 20 years ago “there was a big focus on fat, and fat undifferentiated.”
Since then, health providers have focused more on calories and warned people away from saturated and trans fats more than all fats. Trans fats were separated out on the label in 2006.
The nutrition facts label “is now 20 years old, the food environment has changed and our dietary guidance has changed,” said Taylor, who was at the agency in the early 1990s when the FDA first introduced the label at the behest of Congress.
The FDA has sent guidelines for the new labels to the White House, but Taylor would not estimate when they might be released. The FDA has been working on the issue for a decade, he said.
There's evidence that more people are reading the labels in recent years.
According to an Agriculture Department study released this month, a greater percentage of adults reported using the nutrition facts panel and other claims on food packages “always or most of the time” in 2009 and 2010 compared with two years earlier.
The USDA study said 42 percent of working adults used the panel always or most of the time in 2009 and 2010, while older adults used it 57 percent of the time during that period.
One expected change in the label is to make the calorie listing more prominent. Regina Hildwine of the Grocery Manufacturers Association said that could be useful to consumers. Her group represents the nation's largest food companies.
It's not yet clear what other changes the FDA could decide on.Tracy Fox, a Washington-based nutrition consultant, says clearer information is needed to balance the billions of dollars a year that the food industry spends on marketing.
“There's a lot of information there,” she said. “There may be a way to call out certain things and put them in context.”
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