Food Labels Get a Makeover

Mar 9, 2014 By Akila, Young Editor
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Have you noticed the white box that reads 'Nutrition Facts' on foods that you buy in U.S supermarkets?

The look of this label and the information it contains was standardized 20 years ago. Many things have changed in these two decades - like the kinds of ingredients that are being used to prepare foods today, the quality of products, and even the health of consumers and the growing obesity rate. 

Last week, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) proposed major changes to these labels hoping to bring better awareness among consumers. First Lady, Michelle Obama and her campaign "Let's Move" was the force behind these changes. The changes will affect more than 700,000 labels, all of which will be getting a makeover.

Why Are Changes Being Made?

Mrs. Obama's goal is to make labels informative and helpful, so "a consumer can walk into a grocery store, pick an item off the shelf and tell if it is good for the family".  

Presently labels on food packages are difficult for consumers to understand. Let's take for instance a 20-ounce bottle of soda. The number of servings in that one bottle is 2.5. Many do not realize this when they read the calorie count and drink the whole bottle in one sitting. They end up actually consuming 2.5X more calories. Talk about super-sizing!

The changes will require packaged foods to display calorie counts more prominently and include the amount of added sugars for the first time. Serving sizes would be updated to reflect portions people typically eat. This may result in doubling calorie counts for some foods such as ice cream and sodas. For the food industry, the proposed label changes can cost about $2 billion! But they are expected to have a much bigger impact on the health of the consumers and could save over $10 billion in healthcare costs.

Food Labeling: A Brief History

In the early 1800s, food was locally grown in fields and farms. Consumers knew where their food came from. However, urbanization made it necessary for food to be produced in farms and shipped to towns and cities in distant places. It became difficult to keep track of the quality and source of food.

Eventually, by the early 1900s, food processing became necessary to preserve foods for longer periods of time. Manufacturers began to compromise on quality to reduce food costs and added chemical preservatives, food coloring, and additives -  some of which were harmful to health. However, processing facilities had little or no regulation to keep them clean while laws for making claims about food were unregulated. Consumers, social groups and civic organizations began to protest the poor regulations.

It was after a series of avoidable tragedies that Congress decided to act. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the first step to regulate food. Since then, labels have come a long way. Some have information on allergens, and terms such as Organic, Cage-Free and No Trans Fats.  

Do you read your food labels? What information do you look for in them?

Courtesy: White House, FDA