The Food and Drug Administration for the first time in two decades will propose major changes to nutrition labels on food packages, putting calorie counts in large type and adjusting portion sizes to reflect how much Americans actually eat.
It would be the first significant redrawing of the nutrition information on food labels since the federal government started requiring them in the early 1990s. Those labels were based on eating habits and nutrition data from the 1970s and ’80s, before portion sizes expanded significantly, and federal health officials argued that the changes were needed to bring labels into step with the reality of the modern American diet.
“It’s an amazing transformation,” said Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the F.D.A. “Things like the size of a muffin have changed so dramatically. It is important that the information on the nutrition fact labels reflect the realities in the world today.”
The proposed changes include what experts say will be a particularly controversial item: a separate line for sugars that are manufactured and added to food, substances that many public health experts say have contributed substantially to the obesity problem in this country. The food industry has argued against similar suggestions in the past.
“The changes put added sugars clearly in the cross hairs,” said Dr. David A. Kessler, who was commissioner during the original push for labels in the 1990s. “America has the sweetest diet in the world. You can’t get to be as big as we’ve gotten without added sweeteners.”
Millions of Americans pay attention to food labels, and the changes are meant to make them easier to understand — a critical step in an era when more than one-third of adults are obese, public health experts say. The epidemic has caused rates of diabetes to soar, and has increased risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke. On Thursday, the Obama administration promoted the proposed labeling changes at an event at the White House. At an anniversary ceremony for her “Let’s Move” campaign aimed at reducing obesity, Michelle Obama talked about how hard it is to understand what is in packaged food, and how the changes were a way to demystify that.
“Unless you had a thesaurus, a calculator and degree in nutrition, you were out of luck,” Mrs. Obama said. “Our guiding principle here is simple – that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into a grocery store, pick an item off the shelf and tell whether it’s good for your family.”
In a nod to the new added sugars line, she added: “You’ll also learn where sugar in food comes from — if sugar in yogurt is added during processing or comes from fruits. This is a huge deal.”
The proposal will be open to public comment for 90 days, and it will take months before any change is made final. In a special concession to industry, the agency is allowing companies two years to put the changes into effect.
It was not clear how the food industry would react to the proposed changes, which Michael R. Taylor, the agency’s deputy commissioner for foods, estimated would cost about $2 billion to carry out. (He also said the health benefits could eventually be as much as $30 billion.) The Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, an industry group, said, “We look forward to working with the F.D.A. and other stakeholders.” It added, “It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science.”
Public health experts applauded the proposed changes, which they said were long overdue.
“I really like them. I’m kind of stunned actually,” said Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. The proposal “emphasizes calories; it’s got added sugars; it fixed the portion-size problem.”
She added, “My prediction is that this will be wildly controversial.”
In all, the agency has proposed changing the serving size in about 17 percent of the approximately 150 categories of packaged food, Dr. Hamburg said. It would also add labels to some foods that were not mainstream in the early 1990s, such as pot stickers, won ton wrappers and sun-dried tomatoes.
Twenty-ounce bottles of soda would be counted as one serving, rather than the 2.5 servings often listed now. And the serving size listed on cartons of ice cream, currently a half-cup, would be increased to one cup.
“Half a cup of ice cream is absurd,” Professor Nestle said. “Unless you go to a really fancy restaurant, you’re lucky to come out under two cups.”
The American Beverage Association said that its members already counted 20-ounce bottles of soda as one serving on the label, a commitment they made several years ago as part of the “Let’s Move” campaign. Tracey A. Halliday, a spokeswoman, said that members also show calorie counts on the front of bottles. An F.D.A. spokeswoman said that the one serving count was not a federal requirement and was practiced by some producers, but not all.
Getting nutrition labels on food packages was a major battle. Dr. Kessler, the F.D.A. commissioner at the time, said the fight went all the way to the Oval Office, where President George Bush sided with the agency in what was considered a major victory for public health. More recent efforts have stalled, he said, including a push to get restaurants and movie theaters to put calorie counts on menus and efforts to put codes on the front of food packages to signal how healthy or harmful a food is.
He called the proposed changes “one of the most important public health upgrades in this decade.”
Other public health officials were skeptical, arguing that too few Americans use nutrition labels for the changes to make much of a difference. Others argued that restaurants, which are a major source of calories for Americans and have increased portion sizes substantially, are the biggest offenders.
“This is a false victory,” said Barry M. Popkin, a health researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose project to map what Americans eat has found that the average American consumes 300 calories of added sugars per day. “It will affect just a small segment of consumers who carefully study nutrition fact panels.”
Dr. Hamburg said that the changes were meant to improve “people’s awareness of how much and what they are eating” but could also have a helpful side effect. Detailing calories and portion sizes can be a strong market incentive for food companies to adjust what they put in food, she said. For example, when the agency last tinkered with labels, adding a category for trans fats in 2006, companies soon reduced the amount they added to food.