TOPICS > Health

Why U.S. nutrition labels will be getting a makeover

February 27, 2014 at 6:37 PM EDT
When the Nutrition Facts label was introduced 20 years ago, fat was the primary concern of the American diet. But as our eating and drinking habits -- and knowledge -- have shifted, the Food and Drug Administration is making significant changes to these labels. To sort through the details and reasoning for the update Jeffrey Brown talks to former CDC official Dr. William Dietz.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For the first time in two decades, the federal government is making significant changes to the nutrition labels on the food and drinks you buy at the store.

Jeffrey Brown sorts through the details and what the changes are designed to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: As Michelle Obama said today, unless you had a thesaurus, a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition, you were out of luck. So the new labels put forward by the Food and Drug Administration aim to reduce confusion about calories, serving sizes and more.

We get an explanation from William Dietz, former director for the CDC’s Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity.

And welcome to you.

I want to start with some props that we have to help us, a 12-ounce bottle of soda that used to be thought of as a single serving, and a 20-ounce bottle that is nowadays perhaps at the lower end of what people actually consume in a serving. How do the new labels deal with this growth in serving sizes?

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ, Former CDC Official: Well, the nutrition facts panel was originally developed about 20 to 30 years ago, at a time when servings were much smaller than they are today.

And the 12-ounce to the 20-ounce soda is a good illustration. Another good illustration is that ice cream used to be, a serving was half-a-cup, and, today, it’s a cup. So one of the most important changes in the nutrition facts panel is an updating of portion size.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, now I want to show a proposed new label so we can see another way that these new labels would help. This is — this emphasizes calories, and the number of servings are given much more prominence here. This is to overcome some of the confusion?

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Well, twofold.

Yes, part of it is to overcome confusion. Part of it is to highlight the role of calories. The issue in the United States today is obesity. And obesity is caused by excess calories. So highlighting the caloric content of the product is an important step towards trying to control obesity.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s also in this new proposed label at least something new. It’s a separate line for sugars that are added. Now, explain what that means and why it’s important.

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Well, the last two dietary guidelines, under two different administrations, 2005 and 2010, called for a reduction in the intake of added sugars by Americans.

But the prior labels didn’t have added sugars on them. Furthermore, we know that sugars are an important contributor to obesity. So highlighting added sugars gives Americans an additional piece of information on how to begin to control their weight.

JEFFREY BROWN: In thinking about how important all of this is, what — how much is known about the degree to which people actually read these labels and are guided by them?

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Well, my understanding is that about a third of people read those nutrition facts panels today.

But our hope is that this will get increased use. And, as the panel becomes more helpful and to helping Americans make good decisions about their nutrition, that it will receive increasing use. But it’s certainly not be-all and end-all. People make decisions for all sorts of reasons, and nutritional content is only one of those reasons.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also still on the table, but I gather delayed so far, are changes to labels on menus in restaurants and fast food stores. So that, of course, is another component of all of this.

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Right.

And, in my view, that’s a much more complicated business, because restaurants, the way they prepare their portions and their foods is going to be very hard to assign a nutrition facts panel too.

But, certainly, most people get their calories from those products that they buy in the grocery stores. And those products are going have the nutrition facts panel, which will enable a more educated judgment about that purchase.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, the food industry and everyone actually gets to weigh in for — before all of this is set. Would you expect changes or delays to these proposed new labels?

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Well, I think that there’s going to be a lot of controversy about this.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association had kind of a noncommittal statement this morning about their response to these panels. But I think there’s an opportunity for both the industry and the public, most importantly the public, to respond to these changes and let the federal government know how they feel about it and whether they think this is going to be helpful.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, William Dietz, thanks so much.

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: You’re very welcome.