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First Lady Obama Sets Sights on New Target: Deceptive Food Labels

michelle obama iconAfter the news that Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign may have contributed to a startling drop in childhood obesity in recent years, the first lady yesterday announced that the government would like to see more truthful and helpful labels on the foods that Americans consume.

Commentators called it a “rare foray” for the first lady into an area that  might be considered controversial. Obama hopes to address the reality that the average serving sizes used to calculate calorie intake are no longer aligned with modern American appetites.

“This will be the new norm for providing consumers with the information they need,” said the first lady.

“We first launched ‘Let’s Move’ four years ago, [and] all of us here today were driven by a simple belief: that parents deserve to have the information they need to make healthy choices for their kids,” she said, adding that “this isn’t a particularly radical idea; in fact, it seems pretty obvious. But the truth is that too often, it’s nearly impossible to get the most basic facts about the food we buy for our families.”

With the new rules, beverage companies would no longer be able to treat a 20-ounce bottle of soda as containing 2.5 servings at 8-ounces each for the purpose of labeling estimated calorie levels—since most people don’t stop at 8 ounces of beverage. Instead, both 12-ounce cans and 20-ounce bottles would each have to be considered as a single serving, and the calorie estimate displayed prominently on the label will increase by 50 percent or 150 percent.

The new changes would affect 27 of the 157 product categories governed by portion rules.

A serving of ice cream will now be measured as a cup, rather than a half a cup. But not all serving sizes will rise. For example, the typical serving size of yogurt will shrink from 8-ounce servings to 6-ounce servings and the labeling will change accordingly.

But in most cases, serving sizes will jump. A portion of ice cream, for instance, would now be measured as a cup, rather than half a cup. Health officials hope the move will encourage consumers to take a more sober look at their eating habits.

“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” the first lady told reporters. “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”

While the proposals need to be fleshed out with the food industry, Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, said the scale of the U.S. “obesity epidemic” made it imperative that the guidelines were updated.

Officials estimate nearly half of Americans could be obese by 2020 if trends continue, but Sebelius pointed out the recent data showing a drop in obesity among preschoolers was “a sign that our efforts are beginning to work.”

“We are starting to see some changes, but we are nowhere near the end of this road,” Obama said.

FDA officials know the food industry may push back on some of the changes, particularly since its powerful lobbyists have long fought efforts to tighten labeling rules. The biggest fight will be over proposed changes to how sugar levels are displayed on packaging. For example, the plans say manufacturers will have to estimate how much extra sugar they have put into natural food products, and to keep records for at least two years so they can prove the difference between natural and added sugars if challenged by the FDA

. In addition, there will be tighter guidelines on warnings about excessive salt content and more focus on minerals and vitamins that are deemed essential for a healthy diet.

“For 20 years consumers have come to rely on the iconic nutrition label to help them make healthier food choices,” said FDA commissionerMargaret Hamburg. “To remain relevant, the FDA’s newly proposed Nutrition Facts label incorporates the latest in nutrition science as more has been learned about the connection between what we eat and the development of serious chronic diseases impacting millions of Americans.”

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