FDA Announces Proposed Nutrition Facts Updates

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Thursday morning its proposal to update Nutrition Facts labels for consumer packaged goods. The proposal would update nutrition information, label designs, serving size requirements and labeling for certain package sizes.

Two of the revisions would have particularly broad ramifications for the beverage industry: first, the FDA has proposed that “Added Sugars” be added to the labels, thereby indicating the amount of extra sweetening that has been added to a product, and second, “serving size” would be more in line with the size of an immediate consumption package — so the nutritional content of a drink in a 12 oz. or 20 oz. package would reflect that entire package, rather than the current standard of an 8 oz. serving.

Two documents, one for revising nutrition and supplement facts labels, the other for serving sizes, will be formally published on March 3. Following the formal publishing, the FDA will initiate a 90-day period for comments from the public and industry representatives. After that period of time, the FDA proposes that consumer packaged goods industries be given two years after publication of any final rules governing the Nutrition Facts label to comply with the changes.

The original bill, introduced to the U.S. on Jan. 6, 1993, has enabled consumers to better monitor their health by what they eat and drink. However, in the years since the bill first surfaced to the public, industries and consumer eating habits have changed and turned serving sizes into nearly arbitrary figures.

The proposed updates would include the following measures:

  • A greater emphasis on calories, which would be written in a larger and bolder type.

  • For the first time, “Added Sugars” would be included on the label. The average American eats about 16 percent of their daily calories from sugars added during food production, according to the FDA.

  • The requirement of calorie and nutrition information for the whole package, in addition to per serving, on certain products that contain more than one serving size.

  • Calories from fat would no longer be listed. Total, saturated and trans fat will still be required. “We know that the type of fat is more important than the total amount of fat,” Claudine Kavanaugh, a health scientist at the FDA, said in a release.

  • The number of servings per package would be more prominent and “Amount Per Serving” would include the serving size, such as “Amount per cup.”

  • Serving sizes would be updated to reflect what people eat, not what they should be eating.

  • The Daily Values for a variety of nutrients, such as calcium, dietary fiber and Vitamin D, would be required.

  • The amounts of potassium, which can help lower blood pressure and prevent hypertension, and Vitamin D, which is important for healthy bones, would be required on the label. The FDA has evidence that not enough of these nutrients are being consumed.

The FDA notes that that the main goal of the proposed changes is to expand and highlight information for consumers that may help them decide what they should or shouldn’t be eating. The changes are not an effort to tell people what they should be eating, the FDA said.

Steven Shapiro, an attorney for Ullman, Shapiro & Ullman, LLP, in New York, said that the proposed changes indicate the FDA’s understanding of serious health issues in the U.S. The opinion was underscored in a release by the FDA.

“Obesity, heart disease and other chronic diseases are leading public health problems,” Michael Landa, the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in the release.

First Lady Michelle Obama has been deeply immersed in the health issues of the U.S., especially with younger people, as evidenced by her development of campaigns such as “Let’s Move!” and “Drink Up.” Shapiro said that Obama has been working on this kind of announcement for a long time.

“I know this is something that was important to the First Lady,” he said.

In a press conference this morning that introduced the proposal, Obama detailed what would change on labels and why it’s relevant to Americans.

“Parents deserve to have the information they need to make healthy choices for their kids,” she said. “And this isn’t a particularly radical idea. In fact, it seems pretty obvious.”

She added: “Our guiding principle here is simple: that you as a parent and as a consumer should be able to walk into a grocery store, pick an item off the shelf and tell whether it’s good for your family.”

Since its introduction in 1993, the only major change to Nutrition Facts labels was in 2006, when the FDA required the inclusion of trans fats. Considering eating habits and industry shifts, Shapiro said that the law has become outdated and misrepresentative.

“This is something that people have said for a long time: the serving sizes for a lot of the products really don’t correspond to what people consume,” he said.

In a release, The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) welcomed the proposal, especially for its emphasis on calories, serving sizes and added sugars. However, the group believes that there’s room for improvement.

“While the FDA is off to a strong start, the agency must do more to ensure that these labels communicate better advice on sugar and salt,” Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director, said in the release.

The CSPI believes that the FDA should lower the Daily Value for sodium from 2,400 milligrams to 1,500 and add a requirement for a Daily Value for added sugars. Shapiro believes that the 90-day comment period will enable consumers and industry representatives to voice their opinions on sodium, if necessary. And while he’s interested in the CSPI’s sugar argument, he’s not exactly sure how the FDA would handle it. He added that some industry representatives would say that there should be no difference between sugar and added sugar. He’s also confused by the idea of a Daily Value for sugar, which the FDA suggests should be consumed in quantities that are as small as possible.

This argument adds to a tricky question for the FDA, which focuses on serving sizes.

“How do you determine what people consume?” Shapiro said.

The American Beverage Association (ABA) stated in a release that because of the Clear on Calories initiative, which was launched in 2010 in support of the “Let’s Move!” campaign, beverage companies have already willingly displayed calorie information on the Nutrition Facts labels.

“Next time you pick up your favorite soft drink, take a look,” the ABA writes in the release. “No matter what side you may be looking at, there’s information at your fingertips — and our member companies are happy to provide it.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which aims to serve as the voice of more than 300 food, beverage and consumer product companies, lauded this morning’s announcement from what it believes to be a “thoughtful, effective and passionate advocate” in the First Lady.

“For 20 years, the Nutrition Facts panel has been an invaluable tool to help consumers build more healthful diets for themselves and their families, and the time is right for an update,” the GMA wrote in a release.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Shapiro added that the failed attempt of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who proposed banning beverages of more than 16 oz. that contain more than 25 calories per 8 oz., never stood much of a chance. However, he said that Bloomberg’s efforts weren’t for naught.

“It was just totally irrational,” Shapiro said of Bloomberg’s proposal. “But what it did was certainly highlight the issue to people.”

Considering the length of the two publications, which amount to 512 pages, Shapiro said that relevant industries will likely request an extension to the 90-day comment period. This will allow the industries to consider if the proposal benefits consumers and complies with their companies. The FDA will likely grant the extension request, he said. After that time, the FDA will have to sort through what will likely be a massive pile of comments and decide on necessary revisions to the proposal. Then, it will take two years before the law goes into effect.

So, for all of the First Lady’s efforts, will the FDA be able to turn the proposal into law before the last day of the Obama administration, on Jan. 20, 2017?

“If they do,” Shapiro said, “it’s going to be very close.”