Nutrition labels to get first update in years

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WASHINGTON — Food labels that help U.S. shoppers decipher nutrition content are set to get their first makeover in 21 years.

The changes include updates to the nutrition facts panel on most foods sold in grocery stores and a revision to serving sizes, according to an online summary of two proposals the FDA sent to the White House for review. The full details of the draft regulations can’t be viewed yet by the public, and the FDA declined to comment on its plans.

The nation’s eating habits, food trends and advancements in obesity research have evolved since 1993, when labels bearing calorie counts and fat grams became standard. The new labels will likely make calories more prominent, differentiate between natural and added sugars and make serving sizes more realistic.

“There wasn’t much supersizing 20 years ago,” said Walter Willett, the nutrition department chairman at Harvard University’s School of Public Health in Boston. “The world is changing about us and the nutrition facts panel hasn’t kept up.”

The Obama administration has pushed for uniform nutrition labels in an effort to reduce the U.S. obesity rate, which has more than doubled since 1980 to 78 million people in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The food industry began a voluntary front-of-package labeling system in 2011 in response to first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity and the FDA’s push for more accurate nutritional data.

Making calories more prominent and eliminating the line listing calories from fat may be useful for consumers, said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Washington- based Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose members include Kraft Foods Group Inc. and General Mills Inc.

“The public health perspective that led to the nutrition facts panel in the early 1990s has shifted over the past 20 years, away from total fat and fatty acids and toward calories,” Kennedy said.

Draft regulatory proposals by the FDA are first sent for review to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, a procedure that is supposed to be completed within 90 days. The FDA isn’t able to speculate on an exact time frame, said Theresa Eisenman, a agency spokeswoman.

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