Saturday, February 20, 2010

FDA May Tackle Serving Size Concerns in Food Labeling Overhaul

"Once you pop, you can't stop!"

What clever marketing. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, really. I mean "Bet you can't eat just one!" -- that'll get you, too.

Well, it's time we faced the facts of American food culture straight up. Bigger is better, and more makes you merrier. Tell me, who eats for breakfast a bowl filled with only 1 cup of cereal or -- heaven forbid -- 1/2 cup of granola? And how many people eat 1 oz (about 6-10) of tortilla chips and stop at that?

Yet, if you look at the food labels -- that is what a typical serving size would be!

While food companies have known this (and exploited it) for years, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been slow to catch on...
However, recently the New York Times reported that along with the FDA's hopes of making nutrition labels more prominent on food packaging, they also might align food serving sizes to reflect how much Americans really eat.

According to the Times reporter Willian Neuman,
"the result could be a greater sense of public caution about unhealthy foods."
From a public health perspective there are three major things wrong with the current food labeling system:
  1. Nutrition information is not displayed prominently on packages.
  2. The information is somewhat cryptic - please tell me why it says "sodium" instead of "salt".
  3. Serving size routinely requires calculations to accurately gauge calorie, fat, sugar or sodium intake in one setting.
It seems the FDA is at least considering, and may actually take action to relieve problems #1 and #3. I can't say I'm particularly optimistic, however. If industry agrees with University of North Carolina nutrition professor, Barry Popkin that,
"If you put on a meaningful portion size, it would scare a lot of people,"
then I expect there to be a lot of food industry backlash, lobbying, and dealmaking to ensure that this does not happen. At least that it doesn't happen in a way that actually provides consumers with the information they need or would want in order to make more healthy choices (i.e. eating less of a not so good thing or avoiding certain foods all together).

In the meantime, we can only try to be a little more cautious in reading food labels. Maybe we'll use that information to be satisfied at just one (or two, or three...) chips and throw in a few extra carrot sticks to even the score. Maybe, we'll decide that the temptation just isn't worth it -- and leave the chips and soda at the store -- leaving those treats for special occasions, but keeping it out of the house for the sake of our family's health.

The old adage "Out of sight, out of mind" seems particularly relevant.

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