WASHINGTON -- The ubiquitous nutrition label on food packages is about to get its first overhaul in 20 years, a change that is likely to have a dramatic effect on what people choose to eat and drink and what products sell on supermarket shelves.
Obama administration officials say the update, scheduled to be unveiled Thursday at a White House event, is necessary to keep pace with the science of nutrition and to reduce confusion about what qualifies as healthful food.
The new label, which could take a year or more to appear on store shelves, includes more than half a dozen significant changes -- such as more prominent calorie counts and more realistic serving sizes -- that advocates see as key in fighting the country's obesity epidemic. Years of research show that tracking calories may be
more important than tracking fat consumption when it comes to your health.
The nutrition facts panel, found on roughly 700,000 products, is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate for the food industry. More than half of Americans use it regularly to decipher what's in the packaged food they are buying.
"Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it's good for your family," Michelle Obama said in a statement. The first lady, who has dedicated the past four years to childhood health issues with her Let's Move campaign, will speak about the proposed updates Thursday.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry groups have said they are committed to working with the administration to help Americans make better diet choices. As the new labels were being developed, however, they expressed strong objections to some of the FDA's ideas, especially the addition of a line for "added sugars."
The current label includes the amount of sugar in the product but does not differentiate between sugar that is present naturally and corn syrup or other added substances.
Food industry groups have said that natural sugar and added sugar are chemically identical and that the body doesn't differentiate between the two, so it makes little sense to break them out in this manner on labels.
Health advocates have pointed out that Americans consume too much sugar.
Among the most prominent changes for consumers may be the updates to serving sizes.
Consumers have long been confused about why a can of sweetened tea contains 2.5 servings, a single muffin is two servings or a serving of breakfast cereal is three-fourths of a cup..
Health advocates who have been asking for the changes for over a decade said that they were generally pleased with the FDA proposal but that more work remains to be done.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he feels it is also important to provide information about caffeine content and the percentage of whole grains, and that labels listing ingredients -- which are often printed in tiny type -- are also due for a makeover.
The FDA did not pursue a more radical front-of-the-package labeling approach that has been embraced in other countries, was recommended by two reports from the Institute of Medicine and was called a "top priority" in 2009 by commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
In recent years, some countries, such as Australia, Britain, Sweden and Denmark, have adopted at-a-glance labels for the front of packages that give consumers a sense of the overall healthiness of a food product, using things like star ratings, traffic-light colors or numerical scales.