Twenty years ago a dense matrix of numbers, ingredients and additives first appeared on the packaging of American food products. The Nutrition Facts panel was a frosted window that brought to mind a favorite scripture verse: “For now we see through a glass, darkly.”
Although the panel could be evasive and maddeningly opaque, at the time it represented a major triumph in the art of controlled candor, best defined as a version of the truth that government and business can agree upon. The intentions were good, but the metrics over the past two decades haven’t been. Since the debut of the disclosure panels, obesity in the U.S. has skyrocketed. A Gallup poll released last November showed that Americans’ eating habits have worsened for each of the past five years.
Of course, the limited disclosure offered by the mandated labels hasn’t been a cause of dietary decline; but apparently it hasn’t been much of a factor in slowing the trend either. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration has announced it will be renovating the panels, adding new variables and new emphasis in some cases, and dropping a few lines altogether. Curiously, the “calories from fat” disclosure seems to have drawn a short straw.
“As the agency considers revisions, nutritionists and other health experts have their own wish list of desired changes,” reports Britain’s Daily Mail. “The number of calories should be more prominent, they say, and the amount of added sugar and percentage of whole wheat in the food should be included. They also want more clarity on how serving sizes are defined. …
“Nutrition advocates are hoping the agency adds a line for sugars and syrups that are not naturally occurring in foods and drinks and are added when they are processed or prepared. Right now, some sugars are listed separately among the ingredients and some are not. … Other suggestions from health advocates:
“Add the percentage of whole wheat to the label. Many manufacturers will label products ‘whole wheat’ when there is really only a small percentage of it in the food.
“Clearer measurements … [such as] teaspoons, as well as grams, for added sugars, since consumers can envision a teaspoon.
“Serving sizes that make sense. There’s no easy answer, but health experts say that single-size servings that are clearly meant to be eaten in one sitting will often list two or three servings on the label, making the calorie and other nutrient information deceptive. FDA said last year that it may add another column to the labels, listing nutrition information per serving and per container. The agency may also adjust recommended serving sizes for some foods.
“Package-front labeling. Beyond the panel on the back, nutrition experts have pushed for labels on the package front for certain nutrients so consumers can see them more easily. The FDA said several years ago it would issue guidelines for front of pack labeling, but later said it would hold off to see whether the industry could create its own labels.”
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