While the US Dept. of Agriculture took action this year to revise its long-standing Food Pyramid describing what a healthy diet should consist of, scrapping it in favor of a dinner showing what food people should eat to maintain and improve their health, the Food and Drug Administration is getting ready to revise its nutritional facts labels.

For consumers, nutrition labels on food packaging have the potential to be the most helpful information they can find. Unfortunately, they don’t fulfill that potential. That’s mostly because the labels have long been criticized as virtually unintelligible to the average purchaser of food products.

And while FDA’s nutrition facts label was introduced to American consumers 19 years ago, the agency has been considering adopting the “nutrifacts” label for quite a long time, in fact, since 2003. That’s because the FDA nutrition facts labels, which break down nutrients, including fats, salts, sugar and other ingredients exhibited on food packages, have long been considered confusing and misleading. There is a feeling consumers need easily understandable information and simpler labels would help in the fight against obesity in the US.

The parts of the label FDA is considering changing include the serving sizes – making them more accurate; putting a greater emphasis on the amount of calories consumed, and less of a role for “daily percent values” for nutrients like carbohydrates, fat and sodium, for example.

In an interview with The Associated Press, FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor, who was administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service when the HACCP “Mega-Reg” was developed, says he doesn’t think the changes in nutritional labeling will be a massive overhaul, but will be a step toward a more informative view of what Americans eat. Yet, the rulemaking FDA is developing to make nutritional facts label changes promises to be a big one.

Serving sizes listed on the labels are a major problem. For example, a soft drink serving size listed for several people often is consumed by one. The same is true for a can of soup, which is often eaten by one person, instead of two or three. The FDA wants the number of calories consumed to be clearer and to occupy a bigger and more important role on the label, especially for people who use the number of calories consumed to help them determine how much they should eat. The amount of calories from fat listed also may disappear.

A question of clarity

Another major problem in current labels is the listing of the amount of nutrients in the food in grams, which is not understood by most people living in a country still using the English system of weights and measures. Percent Daily Values, also listed in grams, are also very hard for consumers to understand, and difficult to correspond to a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie-per-day diet, especially when they’re trying to tie the figure to how much food they eat in a day. Therefore, Percent Daily Values is likely to be scrapped. Additionally, some critics of the current FDA system want more listings of the amount of processing a food product has undergone, and the amount of preservatives in food, two areas which will not likely be looked on kindly by the food industry.

Then there’s the problem of visibility, as many consumers don’t take the time to look at labels. So there are thoughts about making them more visible, by either using color-coding, or even a traffic light system, with red, yellow and green signals. Another idea was to use a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on the food ingredients or nutrients.

But FDA has always emphasized what’s in a food product, rather than whether it’s “good” or “bad.” There’s also been concern about visibility of nutrient labels because the labels have been generally on the back or side of packages. Back in 2009, FDA said “front of package” labeling was a top priority for the agency. The idea was the agency would have labels on the front of packages, where consumers would more likely see them.

Earlier this year, though, the industry began an effort to put nutrition facts on the front of some foods. But the plan ran into criticism from FDA and consumer groups, who claimed the agency was being preempted from developing its own front-of-package labeling guidelines. Incredibly, industry was even accused by university groups of not being trustworthy to do its own front-of-package labeling. Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who ran the agency when the nutrition facts labels were created, accused the industry of making food high in fat, sugar and salt seem healthier than they really are. The opportunity to work with FDA and consumers groups has been missed, he said.

Meanwhile, despite the labeling initiative taken by industry, FDA continues to develop its own regulation to deal with front-of-package nutrition labeling. What will then happen remains to be seen.