Rock Doc: FDA considers changes to nutrition labels

By E. Kirsten Peters, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

PetersPULLMAN, Wash. – While I have been dinking around for months trying to lose five pounds, two of my friends have gotten serious about weight loss. Each of them is down 50 pounds.

I’m pleased for them, of course, and truly impressed by their accomplishments. Successfully combating overweight and obesity is one of the best things people can do for their health. It can help everything from joint pain to heart function, from Type 2 diabetes to certain aspects of mental health.

But it’s not always easy to know what we should eat. How many calories are in a slice of pizza or a baked potato? Is it better to reach for an apple or a banana as a snack – or does it make any difference?

The Food and Drug Administration is the branch of the federal government that oversees the labeling of packaged foods. A great deal of processed food is eaten in the U.S., so labels are one key to trying to improve public health.

Recently the FDA opened a public comment period on proposed changes to what’s called the Nutrition Facts Label. The label, introduced 20 years ago, is up for a full makeover. Here’s an overview of what’s likely to change:

– Larger, bold lines will tell you the calories in a serving and the servings per container. This information is on the old labels, but it will jump out at you on the proposed new labels. The idea is that we should be clearly told which foods pack a lot of calories.

– Serving sizes will be modified in keeping with what people really eat and drink these days. A 20-ounce bottle of soda pop, for example, which is often drunk by an individual all in one go, would be labeled as one serving and the calorie count for it declared clearly on the label.

– The new labels will tell you about “added sugars.” Many nutritionists recommend we eat fewer calories from added sugars. Some food is naturally sweet, of course, but adding sugars to foods can needlessly increase their calorie content.

– The proposed label changes include information about vitamin D and potassium. These have been declared “nutrients of public health significance.” Iron and calcium contents will continue to be required; vitamins A and C will be optional.

– “Calories from fat” will be dropped in favor of just the breakdown on where the fat is coming from (saturated fat and trans fat). The reason is that many researchers believe the type of fat you eat is more important than the total amount.

Some of the changes should make it easier to understand whether you really want to eat those crackers or not. Maybe that will help me make better choices that will help me shed my unwanted five pounds.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.