Personal Finance

Changes to food labels to be announced today

Nutrition facts labels in Fort Worth for Features Jan. 29, 2014.  (Star-Telegram Ross Hailey)
Nutrition facts labels in Fort Worth for Features Jan. 29, 2014. (Star-Telegram Ross Hailey)

What, exactly, is a serving size? How much sugar was added? And how much is a gram, anyway?

Nutritionists, dietitians and more than half of Americans who profess to be avid food label readers are hungry for clearer, more helpful food packaging information.

The federal government is expected to respond today, unveiling the first substantial changes in 21 years for rules governing food labels.

New labeling standards from the Food and Drug Administration are set to be revealed in connection with the fourth anniversary of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to combat obesity.

Health professionals and anyone dealing with allergies or other diet restrictions are likely to welcome easier-to-understand labels, but change may not be swallowed easily by manufacturers who would face relabeling costs. Industry analysts note, though, that labels are changed all the time anyway to introduce new designs, products or features.

Some food packagers already participate in a voluntary labeling program, “Facts Up Front,” that began in 2011 to put calories and other nutritional information on the front of packages. Theoretically, that makes some ingredient information stand out.

But small print on the backs or sides of most packages remains the main source of product information.

“When you look at the label, there are roughly two dozen numbers of substances that people aren’t intuitively familiar with,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

A chief complaint is that most nutrients are listed in grams, a metric unit many Americans don’t understand.

Surveys indicate people want clearer information. The FDA’s website said the percentage of Americans who “often use” labels rose to 54 percent in 2008, up from 44 percent in 2002.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in January that 42 percent of adults age 29-68 said they looked at labels “most of the time,” compared with 34 percent in 2007. Among people older than 68, label reading is common among 57 percent, the new study said.

Technically, they’re looking at the “standardized nutrition facts panel,” something required since 1990. It’s these lists of calories, fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, protein and recommended daily values that may be revised.

“Usually, I find that most people are disappointed when they start looking at ‘serving size,’ ” said Jill Hamilton-Reeves, a professor of dietetics and nutrition at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

“One problem is with a package that people think is one serving, but it’s not labeled as such, so if people aren’t skilled with numbers, it’s an issue to calculate what they’re really eating.”

It’s common to find people who thought they snacked on a 170-calorie single portion — but hadn’t noticed that the package actually was considered two servings and 340 calories.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is among U.S. groups asking for more prominent, easier-to-calculate calorie counts based on realistic portion sizes.

Some groups hope to see a separate line in the nutrition box for added sugars or syrups. Other groups want more emphasis on sodium content. And others want stricter standards about what can be labeled “whole wheat” or “gluten free” or even “natural.”

“When words like ‘natural’ aren’t regulated, it can allow some companies to charge more,” Hamilton-Reeves said, suggesting that can mislead some consumers about a product’s nutritional worth.

Some industry watchers would like to see color coding of ingredients, perhaps ranging from green (good for you) to yellow (OK in moderation) to red (limit your intake). Some food labels that meet European Union standards already use this “traffic light” technique.

Why is Uncle Sam messing with the fine print on your tomato can?

It’s because the FDA is charged with ensuring that food sold in the United States is safe and properly labeled. Labeling standards are addressed through the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, and the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.

The FDA’s proposed labeling rules have been sent for review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, according to website information, a preparatory step toward publication.

Any changes take a long time. And the agency has several other food policy revisions on its plate, such as setting sodium limits on prepared food products and requiring restaurant chains to post calorie counts on their menu boards.

Congress also began considering a Food Labeling Modernization Act, introduced last year, that would address many of the issues expected to be included in the proposed FDA rules.

Because the federal government has been slower to strengthen health guidance on labels than health professionals would like, many are happy that “there already are lots of different systems from people taking matters into their own hands,” Hamilton-Reeves said.

A 2008 joint venture of Topco Associates and Griffin Hospital, for example, created the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System that ranks food between 1 and 100 based on complicated algorithms to determine nutritional value.

The scores reflect an overall nutrition quality that doesn’t change with portion size.

NuVal’s website says those ratings can be found on products sold in HyVee in the Kansas City area among other retailers nationally.