Very soon, you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids. —Michelle Obama
Parents will find it easier to know what they're feeding their children in 2017, thanks to new regulations that require restaurants and food manufacturers to reveal more about what's in the food they dish up.
By May 5, if the new administration doesn't reverse course, chain restaurants must comply with a 2010 Food and Drug Administration order that requires them to tell customers how many calories are in what they purchase. The rule also applies to food purchased at vending machines, and in other venues, like movie theaters.
Food manufacturers with more than $10 million in sales have a little more time — until July of 2018 — to revise and expand the nutrition labels on their products, another FDA mandate. Although smaller companies have until 2019 to comply, some have already begun rolling out the new labels.
The changes have been applauded by health officials and food-policy experts who say the old labels are confusing, particularly with regard to sugar content and portion size.
First lady Michelle Obama put it this way: "Very soon, you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids. So that’s a phenomenal achievement.”
The sugar industry is not so enthusiastic, saying the labels have no "scientific justification" and that they contain "extraordinary contradictions and irregularities."
Not so sweet
The new label will continue to tell consumers the total amount of sugar in a food or beverage, but will also reveal the amount of sugar the manufacturer has added to the product to enhance its flavor and appeal.
For example, a cup of yogurt or a tablespoon of strawberry jam may contain sugar derived from milk or fruit, but now consumers will know how many grams of sugar the manufacturer has added to make the product more tasty to a nation suffering from a massively unhealthy sweet tooth.
Consumers may also be surprised to see the amount of sugar added to foods that aren't dessert, such as ketchup, spaghetti sauce and salad dressing.
The updated labels will make the calories in a product more obvious, putting the number in bold type and tripling its size.
And they will include other information that has not been included in the past, including the amount of vitamin D and potassium in the product.
The nutrition label, which is found on about 800,000 products sold in the U.S., has not changed significantly in nearly 20 years, according to the FDA. The changes are designed to reflect updates to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines that were released in January 2015.
Although those guidelines are supposed to influence Americans in their meal planning, the labels stand to have a bigger effect. More than three-quarters of adults check nutrition labels while shopping, the FDA says. And while there's no data on how many Americans have read the latest dietary guidelines, which comprise 122 pages, national rates of obesity and disease suggest that not enough of us are paying attention.
More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, as are about one-third of children and adolescents, according to federal statistics. Obesity is a major factor in preventable deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says 34 percent of heart disease could be prevented with improved diets and more exercise, along with 21 percent of cancer and 33 percent of stroke deaths.
No more "calories from fat"
In addition to giving more information, the new nutrition labels will also delete some: the number of calories derived from fat, which the FDA says is no longer needed in light of research that has shown the type of fat (trans, saturated or unsaturated) we consume matters more than the amount.
The labels, therefore, make it official: Sugar is the biggest dietary demon, not fat, even though in 1988, the surgeon general made reducing fat in American diets a national goal.
It turns out, however, we'd have been better off drinking whole milk all these years, instead of low fat, Time magazine reported earlier this year.
At 12.3 grams, a cup of 2 percent milk has more sugar in it than a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup, Melanie Haiken wrote in Forbes magazine, meaning that a child who drinks a cup of 2 percent milk at breakfast has already exceeded the daily amount of sugar recommended by the American Heart Association.
Following the lead of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in August, the Heart Association issued strict guidelines on how much sugar children should consume. Children under the age of 2 should not have any food or beverage that contains added sugar, the group said. And children between the ages of 2 and 18 should have no more than six teaspoons (25 grams) a day. By breaking down the types of sugar, the new labels will make it easier for parents to calculate their children's sugar intake.
The labels will also be more honest about what constitutes a serving.
For example, current labels say one-half cup of ice cream is a serving. The new ones say a serving is two-thirds of a cup, which is more realistic, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Coming soon to a theater near you
In 2010, the FDA ruled that chains with 20 or more restaurants would have to list calories "clearly and conspicuously" on their menus and supply more nutrition information to customers who request it. Originally, the rules were supposed to take effect in 2015, a deadline later changed to 2016. Now restaurants have until May 5, 2017.
In addition to chain restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and movie theaters will have to comply, making theater-goers more likely to decline extra butter on their tubs of popcorn. (Not surprisingly, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which in 2009 called buttered popcorn the Godzilla of movie snacks, approves.)
And although the requirement means more work for restaurants, the National Restaurant Association has publicly endorsed it.
“The NRA has long advocated for a uniform federal menu-labeling standard and strongly believes in the importance of providing nutrition information to consumers that empowers them to make the best choices for their dietary needs,” Joan McGlockton, the group's vice president of industry affairs and food policy, said in a statement.
That said, some restaurants may be waiting to see what happens in the first 100 days of the Trump administration. President-elect Donald Trump, no fan of FDA regulation, could join with Republicans in Congress and reverse the law, which The Hill reported is one of 14 Obama administration regulations that the new president could undo.
If that happens, nutrition information will still be required in a handful of cities and states that require this disclosure: among them, Vermont, New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.