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It has been 20 years since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last issued guidelines for food labels as they appear on bags and packages in supermarkets and grocery stores. Since then, consumer behavior has significantly changed and advocates have long called for making the information more user-friendly.
“The food environment has changed and our dietary guidance has changed,” said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods who worked at the agency in the early 1990s when a universal labeling system was first introduced. “It’s important to keep this updated, so what is iconic doesn’t become a relic,” he added.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that food manufacturers offered any nutrition information at all. Since people still cooked most of their meals from scratch at home, there was no real need for it. However, as consumers sought greater convenience, the demand for processed foods increased. Eventually those trends prompted congress to impose regulations.
But it wasn’t an easy process, and to some extent, it still isn’t. Especially the listings of serving sizes are utterly confusing to most people who often don’t realize that many food containers hold multiple servings, which can distort other data on the so-called Nutrition Facts labels as well.
“The agency is working toward publishing proposed rules to update the nutrition facts labels and serving size information to improve consumer understanding and use of nutrition information,” said Julie Putnam, a media spokesperson for the FDA, to TIME magazine. “For example, the initial nutritional facts label focused on fat and diet. There is now a shift to focus on calories to help consumers construct healthy diets.”
Also the positioning of food labels needs reviewing. Most labels are placed on the back or one side of the packages and can be hard to read, especially for seniors. A front-of-package design using sufficiently large fonts could be more helpful.
While today’s consumers are arguably better informed about issues of nutrition and nutritional health than ever before, they also get sometimes overwhelmed with data they don’t readily understand. For instance, the metric system that measures ingredients in grams and milligrams is not familiar to many Americans and often leaves them at a loss for what the numbers truly mean.
And although there is some evidence that more people are interested in food labels nowadays, studies have shown that only a fraction – fewer than 10 percent – actually looked at calorie counts, and only a miniscule number – about 1 percent – viewed additional components like fat, trans fat, added sugar and serving sizes. Still, well over one-third claimed to check at least for one ingredient they deemed important.
Regardless of these rather disillusioning findings, a recently released report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that more Americans indeed consume slightly fewer calories, prepare more of their own meals, and want to know about the quality of the foods they buy. The report also found that a growing number are aware of nutrition guidelines and pay attention, at least to some degree, to what they recommend.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author. Visit her blog at www.timigustafson.com.