WASHINGTON – Faced with a nation of rapidly expanding waistbands, the government is seeking advice on how to change food labels to help people better understand what they're getting.
How can information on serving sizes be made more useful? How can calorie counts (search) be made more prominent and clear? The Food and Drug Administration said Friday it wants to hear ideas from the public.
The agency said it has received complaints about products that appear to be packaged as single servings, but contain nutrition labels (search) that indicate they really include two or more servings.
That practice can mislead consumers because calories, fat and so forth are currently listed per serving. People who don't realize they need to multiply by the number of servings may underestimate their intake.
For example, a package of microwave pork rinds lists 60 calories and 350 milligrams of sodium per serving, but the label says the package contains 3.5 servings. That means a consumer who ate the whole package consumed 210 calories and 1,225 milligrams of sodium.
"We are interested in exploring how modifying the food labeling regulations might give consumers better information they can use to control and manage their weight," said Dr. Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the consumer group Public Citizen said the labeling for number of servings in a container is the most misleading thing on food labels.
"If you're going to gulp down the whole thing, and it turns out it's two servings, you think you're only getting half as many calories," Wolfe said. "The remedy should be that the package shows the total number of calories," he said, letting the consumer decide whether to eat less of it or perhaps not buy it at all.
Michael Jacobson, director of the group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it's useful that the FDA is looking into label problems. But, he added, such changes would be only a very tiny step in battling obesity.
The government should take much broader, stronger actions, Jacobson said, including banning junk food (search) from schools, preventing ads for junk food from running on children's television and encouraging people to eat healthy foods and exercise more.
Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Food Products Association, said the industry group had been expecting the FDA announcement and will be preparing a response.
"These are very important questions that do need to be addressed," Earl said. He noted that current labeling was developed with the aim of reducing heart risk, while obesity prevention is the current health focus.
The current food serving sizes (search) were worked out some 20 years ago, the FDA said, and "there is evidence that the U.S. population is eating larger portion sizes than they did in the 1970s and 1980s."
An increase in the standard portion size might result in nutrition labels more closely resembling what people eat, and could lead to more realistic labels for single-serving packages.
However, that could present a different problem, the agency said: "We do not want consumers to confuse the serving size on the food label ... with the amount that is recommended for consumption."
For example, if people tend to drink larger amounts of carbonated beverages, an increase in the standard serving size might have to be accompanied by efforts to inform consumers that the larger amount is not being recommended by the government.
The FDA also wants to hear suggestions for making calories more prominent on labels: Should calories be printed in larger type or perhaps moved to the front of the package?
Current rules call for most foods to include a listing of the calories from fat. That rule was instituted at a time when people were being urged to follow lowfat diets. Today, more moderate fat intake is now suggested by some experts, so the FDA is asking for comments on whether calories from fat still need to be included on labels.
The FDA is seeking comments for 75 days. Interested persons can submit comments via e-mail to fdadocketsoc.fda.gov or in writing to the Division of Dockets Management, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, Md. 20852.
Comments on serving sizes should list Docket No. 2004N-0456. Comments on making calories more prominent on labels should list Docket No. 2004N-0463.