At last: no-nonsense nutrition labels

FDA's proposed new changes aren't perfect, but nonetheless show an important awareness of consumer habits


Has anybody, ever, eaten only a half cup of ice cream?

It’s a fairly safe assumption that the answer to that question is no. But when shoppers walk the aisles of the grocery store and see “340 calories” prominently displayed on a carton of ice cream (with “per 1/2 cup serving” written beneath in illegibly small font), the dessert option doesn’t sound too unhealthy.

Until said shopper returns home and eats three servings, contently consuming 1,020 calories without realizing they’ve become a victim of deceptive labeling.

This may be a hypothetical, but it’s happening frequently enough for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get involved.

Enough is enough: 12 potato chips, three-quarters of a cup of cereal, half a can of soup are not realistic serving sizes.

The FDA is finally putting its collective foot down on this issue that’s gone for far too long.

This problem isn’t about Americans overeating – that’s an entirely separate, and worthwhile, topic of discussion – it’s about food companies doing everything in their power to understate the unhealthy nature of their products.

It isn’t realistic to expect anyone to assume that a personal pizza is actually two servings and it’s even more deluded to think that a consumer would eat only half – it’s called a “personal pizza” for a reason, after all.

Fortunately, the FDA is stepping in.

The proposed new label emphasizes the number of servings per container, with the information written out in larger, bolder type. Even better, labels will have dual columns of information, showing the nutrition facts per serving and, crucially, per container.

The latter detail reveals the FDA’s awareness of American eating habits – it’s become all too common to consume an entire bag of chips in one sitting, even if that package has 10, 140-calorie servings.

Though more needs to be done to address that sort of consumer behavior in the first place, hopefully seeing “1,140 calories” in glaringly bold type will be enough to encourage some shoppers to put the bag of chips down.

There’s more to nutrition than calories though, and it’s important that emphasizing that element doesn’t distract from other facts included on labels. Not enough consumers look carefully at ingredient lists, and more needs to be done to encourage that sort of attentive, smart shopping.

And other changes, like pointing out amounts of added sugars specifically, certainly makes sense on paper, but they don’t accomplish much if Americans aren’t educated about the difference between added and natural sugars.

Including accurate information about food and making it harder for companies to deceive consumers is a great first step, but the impact of these new labels is limited by the attitude and awareness of the consumers reading them.

Although the proposed labels are far from perfect, it’s encouraging that the FDA is tackling this problem. Despite the flaws that plague the new labels, they’re an improvement over the status quo.

And considering that more than 75 percent of Americans are project to be obese by 2020, maintaining the status quo is obviously not an option.