The Demystification Of Nutrition Labels


To say the food industry has changed over the past century would be an understatement. In fact, it’s almost entirely different. Many dramatic differences now exist from the much simpler times in the mid-1900s when, almost entirely, food production was natural.

In today’s world, in accordance with our lifestyle, food has become more of a scientific and technological production than a natural one. In addition to the process of food production changing, we can also see changes in our society that parallel the course of the industry.

Our society is more stressed now than ever, and we have developed needs for food more quickly (i.e. fast food) and more energy to keep up with our hectic lives (i.e. sugars, caffeine in Coke, coffee etc.).

Amazingly, over the last 70 years there has been a reduction in calorie intake, especially in children, yet the obesity level in our country is the highest it’s ever been.

There have been many initiatives to try and tackle problems contributing to the unhealthy ways of the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new initiative, spearheaded by Michelle Obama, is attacking the problem starting at its most basic unit: the calorie.

For the first time in two decades the FDA will propose major changes to nutrition labels on food packages, putting calorie counts in large type and adjusting portion sizes to reflect how much Americans actually eat.

The reality is portion sizes today reflect those of 20–30 years ago, not the modern American diet.

For example, 20 years ago a regular plain bagel was three inches in diameter (like today’s “mini-bagels”) and at most, 140 calories. Today, the size of a bagel has doubled to six inches in diameter and is 350 calories.

The french fry, one of America’s most beloved commodities, has expanded its “small” portion size from 210 calories and 2.4 ounces to a whopping 610 calories and 6.9 ounces–a staggering 400 calorie difference.

“It’s an amazing transformation,” said Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA.

“Things like the size of a muffin have changed so dramatically. It is important that the information on the nutrition fact labels reflect the realities in the world today.”

Labels will now reflect how many servings are in the actual package or beverage, with the calories displayed more prominently in bold, black ink, a much simpler solution than the math problem that serving sizes and caloric intake are now.

The new design features an extra column for “added” sugars, what public health experts say is one of the most important contributions to America’s 33 percent and climbing obesity rate.

As with all major changes in history, there is certainly some major controversy that accompanies the move.

Some argue that it is a false victory; that only a small percentage of people read nutrition labels and changes won’t benefit the majority.

And the cost is also a contention. Those against the change believe that it is not worth the billions of dollars it will take to overhaul the current labeling practices, while those in favor say the health benefits down the road will outweigh those costs substantially and reduce burdens on the healthcare system.

It is most certainly too soon to tell how these changes will play out, and the overall impact they will have, but as a current public health professional I am extremely hopeful as it is small changes like these that will make the greatest impacts on future generations. THEEND

Brendan Toohey

Brendan Toohey

Brendan Toohey

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