Read All About It: FDA Announces New Nutrition Labels

Most of us can relate to food label confusion. We’re already overwhelmed with the sheer number of options staring out from overstuffed grocery store shelves – and the chorus of instructions in our heads to watch out for gluten, dairy, soy, this fat, that sugar, and to quickly calculate how one serving would translate into amounts a real person actually eats…it’s exhausting. For the most part, consumers just end up giving in, throwing the can in the cart and moving on. It’s no wonder North America is plagued by epidemics of obesity, diabetes and general malnutrition – no one really knows what they’re eating! But a collaborative effort between Michelle Obama and the FDA seems to have yielded at least part of the answer: easier to read, more realistic food labels.

What’s different about the new format?

Consumers shouldn’t need specialized food safety training or a degree in nutrition to recognize that not all products are created equal, despite claims made on packaging. Once the new labels hit stores, one of the biggest changes shoppers will see is bigger, bolder calorie counts and a complete description of added sugars. The added sugars make up 16% of the average American’s diet – and they tend to come with little or no nutrients. Consumers need to know how much of these “empty” and highly processed calories are in their food. Crucially, the new labels will also feature more realistic serving sizes – how much real people eat – so shoppers can make calculations more easily.

Will Health Canada follow suit?

Canada’s Health Minister Rona Ambrose says she’s pleased with the changes proposed by the FDA, and was quick to point out that her office has launched its own project to revamp labels. The government has begun to survey Canadians regarding what kinds of changes to labels they’d like to see. However, many advocates for change like Professor David Hammond, a health expert at the University of Waterloo, would like to see “Canada move a little more quickly and forcefully.” We already have a body of clinical research linking serious disease with a poor understanding of diet, and clearer labelling could help Canadians eat and live better.

When will the changes be implemented?

Much like the extended and lengthy protocols associated with FDA pharmaceutical quality control, getting new labels onto grocery store shelves will be a rather slow process. The agency has given the public 90 days to comment on their proposed changes, and the final ruling may take an additional year. Manufacturers will have 2 years to comply with the adjustments – at a projected cost of $2 billion.  And then the only remaining obstacle will be many consumers’ ingrained label-anxiety.

Do you think the changes will be enough to get consumers interested in reading labels before they buy food?