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Proposed Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label

Nutrition Facts labeling, food portions, serving guidelines, serving sizes

Submitted by Dena Kemmet, Extension Agent/Family and Consumer Sciences

The good news is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is poised to make the Nutrition Facts label on many packaged foods significantly more honest. The bad news is that this well-intentioned fix could seriously backfire.

As part of a label overhaul, which the FDA announced last year, the agency is planning to update the serving sizes to better reflect the amount of food people actually consume. The proposed tweak, which is almost through its months-long comment period and is expected to begin to take effect next year, would affect packaged foods for which serving sizes are seen as too low (just under 20 percent of all packaged foods), including popular items like ice cream, potato chips and soda.

The thinking behind the portion adjustment is fairly simple. It's meant to correct for the fact that recent studies show that Americans tend to eat a good deal more in one sitting than is indicated on current labels — which were last adjusted  20 years ago, based on data from a survey conducted from 1977 to 1988.  Changing the serving size for ice cream, for example — from the current half cup to a more realistic full cup — means the amount of calories, fat and sugar per serving will double. And that would theoretically convince people to eat less ice cream.

It's also in accordance with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which was passed in 1990, and, in part, requires that serving sizes accurately reflect consumption patterns.

But what sounds good in theory doesn't always pan out in practice. Harvard's Behavioral Science and Regulation Group, citing a widespread misunderstanding of serving sizes, warned that consumers would read the new label as "endorsing" larger portion sizes. And a new study, published last week in the journal Appetite, added new evidence that the new labels will have the opposite of their intended effect: People will perceive that the new portion size is normal, and they'll eat more ice cream — or other fattening foods — instead of less.

"We found that people misinterpret serving size information, with the vast majority of consumers incorrectly believing that the serving size refers to how much can/should be consumed," the researchers wrote. And they conclude: "The proposed Nutrition Facts label is intended to help consumers make healthier consumption decisions, but the current research suggests that it may backfire, leading consumers to serve more to themselves and others."

People view serving sizes as guidelines, and, therefore, tend to eat more as the serving sizes grow. The label on a bag of chips, which often communicates the serving size in a corresponding number of chips, can have a profound effect on how many chips a person feels comfortable eating.

For more than two decades, the Nutrition Facts labels have used the same portion measurements to communicate nutrition facts. Adjusting for modern day eating habits without inadvertently leading to more gluttony might be a little harder than we think.

Source: eXtension.org

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