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Big Food Defies First Lady with Own Nutrition Label

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Last week, with an assist from first lady Michelle Obama, the Food and Drug Administration announced a set of proposed improvements - the first in 20 years - to the nutrition facts label found on most food packages.

The most striking change would be the huge increase in font size for the calorie count; even for those with poor eyesight, the number would be hard to miss. (You can compare the current and proposed versions here.) This, combined with more realistic serving sizes, which the FDA has also proposed, might help. After all, who eats only 3/4 of a cup of Frosted Flakes? Food companies try to make their hyperprocessed foods look nutritionally palatable by, in the case of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, listing only 11 grams of sugar per serving per 3/4 cup. Under the new rules, serving sizes will be more realistic. As the agency explains, "By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what they 'should' be eating."

Another update would require added sugars to be broken out. This is especially important, given the country's current yogurt obsession. It's impossible to know, for example, how much sugar in your favorite Chobani is naturally occurring from dairy and fruit and how much the company adds to get you hooked.

I was surprised to see a pretty bold proposal from the FDA, and my nutrition colleagues concur. It's a sad day when we are celebrating an increase in font size as a major government victory. But with the feds deregulating poultry slaughterhouses, approving potentially hazardous genetically engineered crops and delaying long-awaited food safety regulations, Barack Obama's administration has thus far been a huge disappointment on food policy.

In response to the FDA's announcement, Big Food's lobbyists were polite enough. One industry consultant told Politico, "I don't think anyone is going to be foolish enough to attack the first lady - that's just stupid." But behind the scenes, they are griping. "It's sort of a laundry list of everything the industry didn't want."

Translation: Expect Big Food to fight like hell. The regulations are far from final. After the requisite 90-day comment period, any revisions from the FDA have to be approved by the White House (where they are could get stalled), and then food companies would have two years to comply.

Meanwhile, the food industry isn't content to just submit comments. Instead, as reported in Politico, Big Food's lobbying powerhouses - the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute - are teaming up to spend $50 million to promote a different, voluntary labeling scheme, just in time to confuse shoppers even more. Called Facts up Front, it consists of a few nutrition items that the large food makers have chosen to display on the front of packages. This is essentially the same information that is already required on the back but with the advantage that companies get to cherry-pick the nutritional information that they serve up to shoppers. And in true industry fashion, there is nothing new about this program. It was first announced by Big Food lobbyists in 2011, and even then it was a renaming of yet another industry scheme, called Nutrition Keys. As "Food Politics" author Marion Nestle so aptly put it, "Food industry thinks name change will disguise bad labeling scheme."     
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