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With New Food Labels, Back Of The Box Gets A Makeover


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

We've been hearing about the Food and Drug Administration's proposed makeover of the Nutrition Facts Panel, the box on food packages that tells us how much fat, sodium and other things are a product. Today, the first lady introduced the redesigned label at a White House event.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: For four years now, the first lady has been using the power of the White House and the Let's Move campaign to nudge and motivate Americans to eat better and move more. Her thinking is that if you give families the information they need to make healthy choices, they will make better decisions. But at today's event, she said one obstacle many parents still face is the bewilderment they feel in the grocery store.

MICHELLE OBAMA: Too often it's nearly impossible to give the most basic facts about the food we buy for our families.

AUBREY: She says we know that lots of Americans look at nutrition labels, but how many people have had this experience?

OBAMA: You squinted at that little, tiny label and you were totally and utterly lost.


AUBREY: You pick up a box of pasta or a can of soup and there's just too much information to interpret.

OBAMA: Is 50 percent of the daily allowance of riboflavin a good thing or a bad thing?


OBAMA: This stream of questions and worries running through your head, when all you really wanted to know was should I be eating this or not.

AUBREY: But help is on the way. The FDA has redesigned the nutrition label with these problems in mind. The goal has been to simplify and draw attention to the information that's most important. Take for instance, calories, a mockup of the new label shows calorie counts will be printed in big, bold lettering right at the top. Your eye jumps straight to it. And why so much emphasis on calories? Well, the FDA says at a time when so Americans need to slim down, counting calories is one of the most effective strategies.

And nutrition advocates such as Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University, agreed.

MARION NESTLE: The reason why calories are important is it's a quick shorthand on whether you want to eat the product or not. Body weight is about calories in and calories out, mostly. And if you know that a product that you're eating has a lot of calories in it, you might want to think twice.

AUBREY: Another big change proposed as part of the overhaul is the labeling of sugar. Officials at the Food and Drug Administration, who drafted the new label, say the way sugar is labeled now is out of date.

Here's FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

MARGARET HAMBURG: We know that as a nation, we eat too much added sugar.

AUBREY: And what's become much more clear over the last 20 years, is that the amount of sugar we're eating is that for us. It's linked to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes and other serious health problems. So Hamburg says it's time for manufacturers to start distinguishing between the sugars naturally found in food and all the added, or refined sugar, they're putting in their products, whether it's in the form of table sugar or corn syrup.

HAMBURG: The new label would provide more information about sugars in food, by now indicating when a food has added sugar.

AUBREY: And Hamburg says the hope is that this label change will motivate the food industry to reformulate some of its products, to reduce the amount of sugar.

Now, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry trade group, says they are still pouring over the details on this proposed label change. So they had no comment on the specifics but they did release a statement, saying it's critical that any changes to the label are based on the most current and reliable science.

The FDA will take public comment on the proposed changes for the next 90 days. And nutrition advocates like Marion Nestle say they wouldn't be surprised to see the food industry challenge the added sugar requirement.

NESTLE: Oh yes, sugar sells food products.

AUBREY: So there could be a lively debate here. The FDA says they expect it will take about two years before we see these new labels on food packages.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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