Organic Consumers Association


Previous Page

Click here to print this page

Make a Donation!


Two articles on this page:
FDA seeks advice on changing food labels
The high cost of fat: $21 billion

FDA seeks advice on changing food labels

Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Faced with a nation of rapidly expanding waistbands, the government is seeking advice on how to change food labels to help people better understand what they're getting.

How can information on serving sizes be made more useful? How can calorie counts be made more prominent and clear? The Food and Drug Administration said Friday it wants to hear ideas from the public.

The agency said it has received complaints about products that appear to be packaged as single servings, but contain nutrition labels that indicate they really include two or more servings.

That practice can mislead consumers because calories, fat and so forth are currently listed per serving. People who don't realize they need to multiply by the number of servings may underestimate their intake.

For example, a package of microwave pork rinds lists 60 calories and 350 milligrams of sodium per serving, but the label says the package contains 3.5 servings. That means a consumer who ate the whole package consumed 210 calories and 1,225 milligrams of sodium.

"We are interested in exploring how modifying the food labeling regulations might give consumers better information they can use to control and manage their weight," said Dr. Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the consumer group Public Citizen said the labeling for number of servings in a container is the most misleading thing on food labels.

"If you're going to gulp down the whole thing, and it turns out it's two servings, you think you're only getting half as many calories," Wolfe said. "The remedy should be that the package shows the total number of calories," he said, letting the consumer decide whether to eat less of it or perhaps not buy it at all.

Michael Jacobson, director of the group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it's useful that the FDA is looking into label problems. But, he added, such changes would be only a very tiny step in battling obesity.

The government should take much broader, stronger actions, Jacobson said, including banning junk food from schools, preventing ads for junk food from running on children's television and encouraging people to eat healthy foods and exercise more.

Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Food Products Association, said the industry group had been expecting the FDA announcement and will be preparing a response.

"These are very important questions that do need to be addressed," Earl said. He noted that current labeling was developed with the aim of reducing heart risk, while obesity prevention is the current health focus.

The current food serving sizes were worked out some 20 years ago, the FDA said, and "there is evidence that the U.S. population is eating larger portion sizes than they did in the 1970s and 1980s."

An increase in the standard portion size might result in nutrition labels more closely resembling what people eat, and could lead to more realistic labels for single-serving packages.

However, that could present a different problem, the agency said: "We do not want consumers to confuse the serving size on the food label ... with the amount that is recommended for consumption."

For example, if people tend to drink larger amounts of carbonated beverages, an increase in the standard serving size might have to be accompanied by efforts to inform consumers that the larger amount is not being recommended by the government.

The FDA also wants to hear suggestions for making calories more prominent on labels: Should calories be printed in larger type or perhaps moved to the front of the package?

Current rules call for most foods to include a listing of the calories from fat. That rule was instituted at a time when people were being urged to follow lowfat diets. Today, more moderate fat intake is now suggested by some experts, so the FDA is asking for comments on whether calories from fat still need to be included on labels.

The FDA is seeking comments for 75 days. Interested persons can submit comments via e-mail to or in writing to the Division of Dockets Management, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, Md. 20852.

Comments on serving sizes should list Docket No. 2004N-0456. Comments on making calories more prominent on labels should list Docket No. 2004N-0463.


Food and Drug Administration:

Public Citizen:


The high cost of fat: $21 billion


By Julie Sevrens Lyons

Mercury News

How much does that Big Mac really cost? Or that big-screen TV you've had your eyes on? About $21.7 billion a year in California, according to researchers who have calculated the costs of the state's big obesity problem.

The study, thought to be one of the first efforts to quantify the effect of physical inactivity and weight gain in the state, determined that it is largely employers who have been shouldering those expenses, in the form of rising medical care costs, workers' compensation rates and lost productivity. The report, prepared for the California Department of Health Services, was released Tuesday.

``This is money out of California's economy,'' said report author David Chenoweth, who estimates that about 8 percent of the state's health care dollars are now being spent on ailments stemming from obesity and inactivity.

The report, which estimated the direct and indirect costs of our growing girth in year 2000 dollars, projected that the expenses would rise to more than $28 billion this year if Californians don't start to lose weight.

But those numbers, Chenoweth cautioned, are ``pretty conservative,'' and probably underestimate the true costs of obesity.

The price of obesity

Public health proponents hope that by placing a dollar sign on the problems associated with obesity and inactivity, government, school and community leaders will be more likely to adopt aggressive anti-obesity measures.

The statistics are especially sobering, they said, when you consider what else that money could be spent on.

``You could buy something like 14,000 parks. Or workers could have an apple a day for 35 years that the employer would pay for,'' calculates Susan Foerster, chief of cancer prevention and nutrition for the Department of Health Services.

Three weeks or more per year of lost productivity can be attributed to inactivity, obesity and overweight, the report estimates.

But if just one or two Californians out of every 20 who are overweight or inactive were to become leaner and more physically fit, ``significant savings could be realized,'' the report found. A 5 percent increase in the percent of physically active and thinner adults, for example, could save the state about $1.3 billion a year.

To come to those conclusions, Chenoweth's team analyzed 3.7 million medical claims filed in California in 1999. Recognizing that diseases are caused by other factors and not just a couch-potato lifestyle, they estimated what percent of conditions were due to physical inactivity, obesity or overweight using an epidemiological model. About 12 percent of heart attacks, they reasoned, were due to inactivity, and about 16 percent resulted from obesity and overweight.

Similar costs

Surprisingly, California's cost isn't out of line with what other states are spending as a result of obesity-related ailments, Chenoweth said.

Long considered a state of sprouts-eating yoga lovers, California had one of the lowest adult obesity rates little more than a decade ago. But that rate doubled between 1991 and 2001, a much faster increase than in most other regions. In 1999, 53 percent of the state's residents were overweight or obese, the report says.

``The state of California,'' said Chenoweth, ``has gone from the cream of the crop to the middle of the pack.''

Reversing the trend will take a combination of efforts, public health officials believe, involving schools, local governments, community leaders, food manufacturers and individuals themselves. But because Americans spend so many of our waking hours at work, employers are in a unique position to make some beneficial changes that could help their workers' waistlines -- and their own bottom line.

They point to a handful of Silicon Valley companies like Google that have made it easier for workers to be healthy. The Internet search engine firm encourages its workers to participate in roller hockey games, bike rides and walks in the wildlife preserve next door. Workers are also given free passes to enjoy rock climbing or gymnastics at a Mountain View gym, and are provided with free healthy lunches every day.

Kaiser Permanente, practicing what it preaches, paints its stairwells in bright funky colors so that employees and patients are more likely to use them. The medical giant also offers discounts to Weight Watchers for its employees and hosts farmers markets at several of its hospitals, to make fresh fruits and vegetables more readily available to workers and community members.

``I think employers need to look at their own workers and their own work sites and ask what kind of changes they can make to make the healthier choices easier,'' said Dr. David Sobel, director of patient education and health promotion for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

``Although individuals are paying a huge cost for overweight and obesity,'' he said, ``employers are facing enormous challenges from productivity, from illness and disability.''