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F.D.A. Finishes Food Labels for How We Eat Now

F.D.A. Finishes Food Labels for How We Eat Now

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WASHINGTON — Major changes to nutrition labels on food packages became final on Friday, with calorie counts now shown in large type and portion sizes that reflect how much Americans actually eat.

It was the first significant redrawing of the nutrition information on food labels since the federal government started requiring them in the early 1990s. Those labels were based on eating habits and nutrition data from the 1970s and ’80s and before portion sizes expanded significantly. Federal health officials argued that the changes were needed to bring labels into step with the reality of the modern American diet.

The Food and Drug Administration proposed the changes in 2014, but consumer advocates worried that many of the major elements would not survive lobbying by the powerful food industry. A number of companies vigorously opposed, for example, a separate line for added sugars. But the final rule, announced by Michelle Obama on Friday, mostly remained intact, including the line on added sugars.

“This has to be scored as a huge win,” said Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “The F.D.A.’s final rules confirm what the agency proposed originally on the most important elements. The big ones — calories, added sugars — survived.”

The changes jump out. The calories are in large bold numbers, and are easier to spot at a glance. A single ice cream serving is two-thirds of a cup — compared with the current half cup.

Most food manufacturers will be required to use the new label by July 2018. Producers with less than $10 million in annual food sales will have an additional year to comply.

Millions of Americans pay attention to food labels. The changes are meant to make them easier to understand — a critical step in an era when more than one-third of adults are obese, public health experts say. The epidemic has caused rates of diabetes to soar and has increased risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke. Comments from companies and trade associations seemed to reflect acceptance. The American Beverage Association said its members had already put clearer calorie counts on the front of beverage bottles as a part of Ms. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.

The revised food label, right, includes added sugars as well as emphasizing serving size and calories. (The labels are for two hypothetical products.) More information Credit F.D.A.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food and beverage companies, said, “We look forward to working with F.D.A. and other stakeholders on messages and activities to help consumers understand what the new labels mean.”

But the sugar industry did not relent in its criticism. The Sugar Association said it was “disappointed” by the F.D.A.’s decision to require a separate line for added sugars. It argued that the rule lacked “scientific justification.”

The association said, “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America.”

Getting the original nutrition labels on food packages was a major battle. Dr. David Kessler, the former F.D.A. commissioner, said the fight went all the way to the Oval Office, where the first President George Bush sided with the agency in what was considered a major victory for public health.

“They got this right,” he said of the new changes in an interview on Friday. “This will affect people’s lives. It gives really important information to people who want to use it.”

It is also important for the food and beverage industry, he said. “By putting added sugars on the label, it creates incentives for industry to make healthier products, because they don’t want to look bad with all of that sugar on the label.”

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he believed the new line for added sugars would help change behavior.

“A lot of people will be shocked to see how much sugar is in soda,” he said. “Teachers and parents will leap at that as something to show their kids.”

A 12-ounce can of Coke has 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar, which, according to Mr. Jacobson, is about the equivalent of 9.2 teaspoons. He said a shortcoming of the new rules was that companies could still express sugar in grams, not in teaspoons.

Sourced from: F.D.A Food Labeling