Nutrition labels on food packaging under microscope in U.S., Canada

Nutrition labels that are found on just about every piece of packaged food could be getting a new look in the U.S., with a greater focus on calories and added sugar.

Proposed changes announced by Michelle Obama, while Canada's government seeks public input

U.S. tackles obesity with better labels

10 years ago
Duration 2:48
Nutrition labels on food packages would now highlight calories and sugars

Nutrition labels that are found on just about every piece of packaged food could be getting a new look in the U.S., with a greater focus on calories and added sugar.

The changes, proposed by the Obama administration, would see calories printed in a larger and bolder type and consumers would be able to know whether foods have added sugars.

Canada’s Health Minister Rona Ambrose said she is happy about the news from the U.S.

“I welcome the efforts by the FDA to update U.S. nutrition food labels and am especially encouraged by some of the new components to make labels easier to read and understand, like portion sizes.”

She added that the Canadian government launched its own process a few months ago, consulting with consumers to improve nutrition labels here.

“Over the coming months, we'll use the information we receive directly from Canadians to update our labels that will help parents and consumers make healthier and informed food choices,” she said.

David Hammond, an associate professor at the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, Ont., told CBC News that hopefully what is happening in the U.S. will work as “an impetus” for Canada.

“I think most people in the public health community would like to see Health Canada move a little more quickly and a little bit more forcefully,” he said.

Added sugars

The proposed American labels would also update serving sizes to more realistic standards of how people actually eat.

"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," said Michelle Obama, who announced the proposed changes Thursday at the White House.

She made the announcement as part of her Let's Move initiative to combat child obesity, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary. On Tuesday, she announced new Agriculture Department rules that would reduce marketing of unhealthy foods in schools.

The other big shift is the focus on added sugars. Consumers will finally be able to see how much sugar is added to a  product.

Marion Nestle, professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, was please and surprised by the FDA’s move, adding it has been something nutrition advocates have been seeking for a long time.

“I'm just astonished that the FDA was able to do this and delighted with what they were able to do,” Nestle told CBC News. “Advocates in the United States have been hoping that the FDA would put added sugar on labels for years now, and we'd sort of given up that they would do it, but here they are."

According to the Agriculture Department's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, added sugars contribute an average of 16 per cent of the total calories in U.S. diets. Though those naturally occurring sugars and the added sugars act the same in the body, the USDA says the added sugars are just empty calories while naturally occurring ones usually come along with other nutrients.

As for how much changing the label will change the population’s eating habits, Nestle said it depends.

“We don't know whether people are going to change their behaviour because of the labels, but there's plenty of research on the old label, that showed that people looked at trans fats for example when trans fat was put on and we were extremely concerned that food products still had trans fats in them,” she said.

“I think there will be a lot of consumer interest. Obviously if people don't look at the label, it's not going to have an effect on their behaviour … but for people who do look on the label it will.”

2 years to comply

The new nutrition labels are still a few years away. The FDA will take comments on the proposed changes for 90 days, and a final ruling could take another year. Once it's final, the agency has proposed giving industry two years to comply.

The FDA projects food companies will have to pay around $2 billion to change the labels.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the industry group that represents the nation's largest food companies, did not respond to any specific parts of the proposal but called it a "thoughtful review."

President Pamela Bailey also said it was important to the food companies that the labels "ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers."

With files from The Associated Press