Michelle Obama pitches new food labels: more focus on sugar, less on fat

In announcing new FDA food labels, Michelle Obama said, 'You as a parent should be able to walk into a grocery store, pick an item from a shelf, and tell immediately whether it’s good for your family.'

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
First lady Michelle Obama unveils proposed updates to nutrition labels in the East Room of the White House Thursday. The labels are intended to reflect the latest scientific information linking diet and chronic diseases such as obesity.

First lady Michelle Obama announced Thursday that the US Food and Drug Administration is revamping the nutrition label on 700,000 food products. The goal: to not only more accurately represent how and what Americans eat, but to better point out what they should be eating.

In announcing the proposed changes, Mrs. Obama, who has made fighting obesity with her “Let’s Move!” initiative a cornerstone of her time at the White House, called the new effort the “labels of the future.” She said they were designed with a “simple guiding principle – that you as a parent should be able to walk into a grocery store, pick an item from a shelf, and tell immediately whether it’s good for your family.”

The FDA label revamp, the first major one in 20 years, will demand that food producers include realistic serving sizes – no more two servings per small bag of chips – and break out the amount of added sugar, as well as increase the font size of the calorie count to make it pop.

The public will have 90 days to comment before a final label is developed, and manufacturers will have two years to make the changes, which are expected to cost about $2 billion.

The FDA is calling the new label a major health policy change, especially after the US Department of Agriculture reported last year that 42 percent of Americans are label-checkers. On average, however, a consumer spends only six seconds picking a product – not enough, Mrs. Obama says, to figure out the math on the current label.

In many ways, the change reflects new scientific thinking about diet and weight, but it’s also clearly a new front in a protracted government fight against the US food industry and its role in what many call a national obesity epidemic.

“The new label by itself is a big, huge step forward, and not only because of pushing calories way up high and doing full servings,” says Barry Popkin, a health researcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and author of “The World Is Fat.” The crucial component, he says, is that the FDA added “fruit juice concentrate” as an added sugar, despite cries of protest from the food industry.

The labels offer one particular retreat from previous dietary thinking: For the first time, they will play down the role of fat in weight loss and gain, replacing the fat calorie count with the percentages of certain kinds of “good” or “bad” fats in the product. Some studies have found, for example, that whole-milk drinkers tend to be skinnier than low-fat milk drinkers, suggesting that the body’s interaction with fats is more complex than originally thought.

Previous scientific thinking enshrined in label philosophy – that fat made you fat – showed the power of the label in sparking food manufacturers to create massive new groups of products that may have negligible, or even detrimental, impacts on public health.

A focus on fat as the cause of obesity in the 1990s created a major “nonfat” industry that ranged from yogurts to ice creams – a change that may have actually exacerbated obesity issues as manufacturers increased sugars to replace the missing fat flavor.

That’s the other major change on the label: Now producers have to identify “added” sugars as compared with naturally occurring ones.

In another bid for realism, the FDA is also mandating that serving sizes reflect how people actually eat various products. Given that no one has ever eaten just half a cup of ice cream, for example, the new ice cream serving size is one cup.

The serving size requirement will become the major flash point between the US food industry and regulators, predicts Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

US administrations “have been under tremendous pressure from the food industry to not make these labeling changes,” he says.

Increased focus on exercise and nutrition, especially for children, appears to be paying off in the United States. New research released this week showed that the obesity rate for very young children in the US has gone down by 43 percent in the past decade – a result attributed, at least partially, to an increased focus on healthy food choices.

In the end, the new label suggests to some obesity experts that basic food is taking on new political importance in America. Food labels were first made mandatory for most grocery store products in the early 1990s.

“I think partly the science has marched ahead, but also the country has been more willing to stand up to the food industry, and that’s being reflected in the behavior of our elected leaders,” says Mr. Brownell.

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