A New Age in Food Labeling

AFTER much anticipation, the new regulations governing food labeling in the United States - all 4,000 pages of them - will go into effect, starting next May.

"The Tower of Babel in food labels has come down" is how Dr. Louis Sullivan, secretary of health and human services, sees it.

Certainly grocery shopping will never be the same again.

Come May, it is possible to imagine shopping-cart gridlock as scholars of cereal boxes compare the grams of fat, salt, and sugar among dozens of crispy-crunchy brands.

Will the new labeling lead not only to better nutrition but to new levels of mathematical proficiency?

In any case, counting the calories - and everything else in each of 80,000 types of food covered - will cost food manufacturers an estimated $2 billion by the time the regulations have been fully enforced in 1994.

The light will go out on "lite," or at least on vague uses of that term. The fat content has to be reduced by at least 50 percent to earn that imprimatur. And manufacturers will be ill-advised to use the term "fresh" unless they can prove it.

Two cheers for the new regulations. Full disclosure is always a good policy, in food as elsewhere. And it's about time that ad writers' airy adjectives give way to more precise descriptions. The consumer is being served.

But a cautionary note should be sounded. Food cannot be reduced to the sum of its ingredients, nor should anyone who enjoys eating wish it to be so. Health claims for food products have often been exaggerated, and clearer labeling may not eliminate that practice altogether. The best guidelines remain balance, moderation, and variety.

Given these reservations, let the new age of food labeling begin, with every shopping list dotted by learned footnotes and calculators at the ready to tabulate contents as well as dollars.

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