In the past 17 years, eating habits have changed, knowledge about health-diet links has changed, interest in nutrition has changed - but food labels have not.

"The last significant reform on food labels was in 1973," said Janine W. Jarvela, consumer affairs officer with the Food and Drug Administration, who discussed proposed changes in food labeling at a recent Utah League of Consumers meeting.Current nutrition labeling requirements seem chaotic and confusing, she said. Use of nutrition labels has been voluntary unless additives are used or the company makes nutritional claims.

The FDA would like to change that and at the same time wants to make labels more useful to consumers. Proposed changes address four areas:

1. Mandatory status of nutrition labeling.

The new regulations would make nutrition labeling mandatory on most foods that are "meaningful" sources of nutrients. This would include foods that: contain 2 or more percent RDI (reference daily intakes) per serving for protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron or calcium; provide more than 40 calories per serving or more than 0.4 calories per gram; or foods that contain more than 35 mg. of sodium per serving.

Foods that would be exempt from nutritional labeling include those with little nutritional significance, products of small businesses (making under $500,000 a year), restaurants, foods prepared on-site in grocery stores, bite-size packages, small open containers of produce, infant formula

(which is already covered by more stringent requirements), dietary supplements, foods used as the sole item in a diet or under medical supervision, foods shipped in bulk form and foods for institutional use.

Under the proposals, nutrition information would have to be displayed or be available at purchase for fresh produce and seafoods.

"Fast foods would not be covered under phase one of the current proposals," said Jarvela, "but that's an issue that remains alive. A lot of people would like nutrition information on these kinds of foods as well."

2. Nutrition content revision.

The new proposals would revise the list of required nutrients on nutrition labels. Categories added include calories from fat, saturated fatty acids, cholesterol and fiber. Optional ingredients would be thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. "Deficiences in these nutrients were prevalent 20 years ago, but they have gone away," said Jarvela.

In addition to this change, the FDA wants to replace current RDA (recommended dietary allowances) with RDIs and DRVs (daily reference values).

RDAs were established to take into account the maximum amount of nutrient needed by any one age and population group, said Jarvela. RDIs give average amounts, so are likely to be lower. And they are also a more standard measure used by many other countries.

DRVs will be established for fat, saturated fatty acid, cholesterol, carbohydrate, fiber, sodium, unsaturated fatty acid and potassium to specify the amounts of these nutrients required daily, based on a 2350 calorie diet. DRVs on labels will be expressed as a percentage of the daily requirement. For example, if a label shows a DRV of 3 percent for fat, the consumer knows this product contains 3 percent of the total fat intake he or she should consume in one day. It's a way for consumers to better see how individual products fit into their overall diets, says Jarvela.

3. Standardize serving sizes.

Another part of the new labeling proposals looks at standardizing serving sizes. As it is, manufacturers can define serving sizes any way they want. (Some products that come in a size easily consumed in one setting - yogurt and frozen yogurt come to mind - may be defined as 11/2 or 2 or even 4 servings. Then calories and nutrients are listed per serving, so it makes you think you are getting fewer calories than you really are.)

Standard serving sizes have been established for 159 product categories, based on amounts commonly consumed. "Single-serving" containers may contain no more than 150 percent of the standard serving size.

4. Cholesterol definitions.

Much confusion has arisen in the past over terms such as "low cholesterol" and "reduced cholesterol." They sound good - but what do they really mean?

New regulations define these terms:

- "Cholesterol free" or "no cholesterol" can be used only on foods that contain less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving and 5 grams or less of total fat.

- "Low cholesterol" can be used on foods that contain 20 milligrams or less per serving and 5 grams or less total fat.


(Additional information)

What do you think of the new labeling proposals? If you have questions or comments the FDA would like to hear from you. Public comment period lasts until Nov. 17. Then based on comments and other input, the FDA will draft final regulations, which could be adopted by next spring or summer. Manufacturers have one year from the date of adoption to put labels on products.

If you have comments, write:

Dockets Management Branch (HFA-305), Room 4-62

Food and Drug Administration

5600 Fishers Lane

Rockville, MD 29857