Nearly half of Americans say they check nutrition labels on packaged foods at the grocery store. Do we understand what all the numbers mean to our health?

The New York Times Health and Aging writer Jane Brody tells us about a planned revision by the F.D.A. on food labels. Here is a portion of her article…

The epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes show that the goal of a healthier population has yet to be realized. One obstacle is that those most likely to read food labels are health-conscious people who least need to do so.

But another problem is the label itself, which can border on meaningless for many consumers, especially those who cannot relate grams of a nutrient or percentages of the Daily Value to the amount of food that goes in their mouths.

So, prompted by the Institute of Medicine, the F.D.A. is planning a revision. It will be a while in coming: Thousands of public comments must be reviewed, then final rules issued and the food industry given time to implement them.

Some of the proposed changes should be helpful. For example, instead of listing sugar as a single entity, the new label would separately list “added sugars” to distinguish those naturally present and not.

Also, the proposed label will highlight the number of calories in the amounts of food most people consume at a sitting. Though an official “serving” of a soft drink might be 8 ounces, for example, people may habitually consume the entire 12-ounce can or 20-ounce bottle; if so, the calories in that amount would be featured on the label.

Labels on ice cream, too, now list one-half cup as a serving. That would increase to one cup on the new label, bringing a serving of Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream, for example, to a whopping 680 calories. With that amount prominently displayed on the carton, a shopper might instead choose Edy’s Slow Churned Double Fudge Brownie Ice Cream – just 240 calories a cup.

Official serving sizes are supposed to reflect what people actually eat, but they are based on what Americans typically consumed in the 1970s. More recent national nutritional surveys show that the average person eats considerably more of many foods; hence the uptick in serving sizes.

Given the high cost of changing hundreds of thousands of food labels, I and many health professionals believe the revisions, though positive over all, do not go nearly far enough.

For one thing, they fail to give harried shoppers a fast and easy way to distinguish among similar products, perhaps by using front-of-package traffic light signals to highlight the good, bad or neutral health value of a food. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said in an interview. “In Great Britain, it was shown that when people saw red dots on a package, they didn’t buy it.”

That is why the American food industry has fought hard against such indications of a food’s healthfulness.

Also absent in the proposed revision is information that would “actively encourage consumers to purchase foods rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” said Dr. David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “The answer to obesity, if there is one, is eating real food and moving away from foods laden with fats, sugars and salt. Highly processed food goes down in a whoosh, but real food slows down eating,” he said.

Instead, the new label, like the current one, would focus on specific nutrients and give “food companies an incentive to fortify their products so they can make claims such as ‘added fiber’ or to produce sugar-laden foods that can be labeled ‘low fat,'” he wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine in July. 10/26/14

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