First Lady Michelle Obama has been active in bringing about a change to the practice of food labeling in the United States. Last February, the FDA announced a program of change to nutrition labels, the first since 2006. The FDA’s proposed changes are currently out for public review. The entire process of review, deliberation, and implementation could take two or three years, as the FDA will probably give companies two years in which to actually make the changes. This labeling may not change overnight but the writing is clearly on the wall.

Michelle Obama has spearheaded the Let’s Move campaign in the US addressing childhood obesity and was present at the White House event – alongside Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg – when the proposed changes were announced.

The changes to food labels will certainly help to achieve the first pillar of Let’s Move – offering parents tools with which to decide about their children’s nutrition. They reflect new dietary recommendations, consensus reports and national survey data (such as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans), nutrient intake recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, and data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The FDA also considered extensive input and comments from stakeholders.

The changes will affect all packaged foods – apart from certain meat, poultry, and processed egg products regulated by the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service – and dietary supplements.

Michelle Obama commented: ‘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… So this is a big deal and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.’

The proposed label will:

Require information about the amount of ‘added sugars’ in a food product

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that intake of added sugar is too high in the US population and should be reduced. The FDA proposes to include ‘added sugars’ on the label to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product.

Update serving size requirements to reflect the amounts people currently eat

What and how much people eat and drink has changed since the serving sizes were first put in place in 1994. By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not what they should be eating.

Present calorie and nutrition information for the whole package

This is for certain food products that could be consumed in one sitting.

Click here to view diagrams.

Present ‘dual column’ labels to indicate ‘per serving’ and ‘per package’

This is for larger packages that could be consumed in either one sitting or multiple sittings.

Require the declaration of potassium and vitamin D

Some people in the US population are not getting enough potassium or vitamin D, putting them at a higher risk for chronic disease. Vitamin D is important for its role in bone health. Potassium is beneficial in lowering blood pressure. Vitamins A and C will no longer be required on the label, though manufacturers can declare them voluntarily.

Revise the Daily Values for a variety of nutrients such as sodium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D

Daily Values are used to calculate the Percent Daily Value on the label, which helps consumers understand the nutrition information in the context of a total daily diet.

Remove ‘Calories from Fat’

Research shows that the type of fat is more important than the amount. ‘Total Fat’, ‘Saturated Fat’, and ‘Trans Fat’ will stay on the label.

Emphasize calories, serving sizes, and Percent Daily Value

These elements are all seen as important in addressing public health problems including obesity and heart disease.

For two decades, nutrition labels have been required on all packaged food in the US. Their design has not changed in eight years. The last change occurred in 2006 when trans fats information had to be declared. This change prompted manufacturers to reduce partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) – the main source of trans fats – in their products. The FDA recently issued a preliminary determination that PHOs are no longer ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS).

Critics say that the proposed changes do not go far enough. They say that it is important to also provide information about caffeine content and the percentage of whole grains and that the ingredients listing is also due an update.

The FDA is still taking public comments on the proposed changes (part of the 90-day review period). It may take a year or longer to review the feedback and decide whether to make changes. Once it issues a final rule, companies may be given two years to change their packaging.