Nutrition Facts Panel faces 'tweak,' not overhaul, experts say

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2014 - Experts say the revamped Nutrition Facts Panel, set to be released by FDA today, will “tweak” the information found on the back of packaged foods - but won't “overhaul” it.

A group of industry specialists, convened yesterday at the National Press Club by consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), was in unanimous agreement that the FDA's update would change, but not revolutionize, the Nutrition Facts Panel. The panel, which is found on the back of virtually all retail food products, has not been seriously altered since it was first required by law in 1990.

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 The participants said the agency's decisions regarding labeling of calories, sodium, fat and added sugars are the biggest concerns for the food industry and consumer advocates.

The redesigned Nutrition Facts Panel will probably feature “more prominent labeling of calories,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. He said the “White House's enormous concern about obesity” - most visible in First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Initiative, which turns four this week - could lead FDA to make calorie facts larger on food packaging.

Jacobson also predicted FDA would require clearer nutrition information on some packaged products that may appear to a consumer as a single serving but actually is two, three or even four servings. Many customers eat those products - often baked goods, chips and candy bars -- all in one sitting, consuming double or triple the calories stated on the Nutrition Facts Panel.

The agency could also completely eliminate the “calories derived from fat” section of the label, following nutritionists' criticisms that the panel does not distinguish between “good” and “bad” fats.

Sodium could be another area of focus for FDA, as the agency works this year toward creating a federal rule on sodium levels in processed foods. Today's revamp could change the FDA's recommended daily intake levels for sodium, said Jacobson. Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group, noted sodium was a “top issue” for FDA.

If FDA does change its sodium recommendation - perhaps closer to the 1,500 mg recommended by the American Heart Association, down from the current 2,400 mg - many in the food industry will have to change their labels to indicate a higher level of the substance. Soups currently labeled to contain 20 percent of an individual's daily-recommended intake of sodium would have to up that percentage, to 32.

Though consumer groups have pushed for a new “sugars added” section on the label, Jane Andrews, a nutrition and product labeling manager at Wegmans Food Markets, said she thought FDA action on sugars was unlikely. “There's no way to test for it,” she said during the CSPI panel. “I'll be surprised.”

Line-by-line tweaks aside, however, FDA is not expected to make any dramatic changes to the black-and-white panel. Jacobson cautioned consumer advocates against expecting any nutrition information to be required on the front of the labels, something they have been pushing for in recent years.

Andrews said that whatever FDA announces today, it should keep in mind that packaging is an expensive undertaking for retailers, and refrain from issuing any other major changes in the near future. “Industry wouldn't want changes every five years,” she said. “Every 20 years is okay.” 

“Gradual changes might have more of an impact in bringing people along,” said Seifer. He pointed out that many have spent the last 25 years educating consumers on the current Nutrition Facts Panel, and dramatic change would require an intensive education effort.

Burkey Belser, who designed the original label for the FDA in 1990, agreed, calling the Nutrition Facts Label an “iconic brand.”

“Mess with [the design of the panel] at your peril, and when you do, you'll discover just how loud screaming can be,” he said.

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