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Nutrition labels to receive an upgrade

Nutrition labels are getting a makeover for the first time since their inception 20 years ago, as officials aim to highlight information pertinent to keeping the heart and body healthy.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed the updates last week to enlarge the total calorie count; change the serving size to more accurately reflect an average portion; include added sugars, vitamin D and potassium; and more. The modifications are based on the latest nutrition science, according to the FDA's proposal, which is out for a 90-day public comment period.

"For 20 years, consumers have come to rely on the iconic nutrition label to help them make healthier food choices," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in a prepared release.

Many of the changes appear helpful, said Darlene Flaherty, Carroll County Health Department nutritionist. Yet, reading labels requires a basic knowledge of nutrition.

"I do think consumers should have more information, but the bottom line is they have to understand," Flaherty said. "I just feel like whatever changes they come up with, there's going to need to be some education that goes along with it."

The labels have provided insight into the health benefits - and drawbacks - of pre-packaged foods and drinks since 1993. There's been one change since their inception: the inclusion of trans fat, which increases an individual's "bad" cholesterol. The nation's trans fat intake has significantly decreased as awareness of its deleterious health effects has increased, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The roughly 700,000 products that use nutrition labels would have about two years from the final guidelines' effective date to make the change, according to the proposal.

Packaged foods and drinks typically eaten in one sitting would be labeled as single servings. For example, a 20-ounce soda bottle would be labeled as one serving rather than 2.5 8-ounce servings, and thus, the calorie count would reflect the whole beverage.

This change aligns with the push for nutrition labels to mirror how much people generally eat in one sitting.

The calorie count would be emphasized in much larger lettering, and the "calories from fat" line item would be eliminated. This would be in accordance with research indicating the type of fat is more important than the amount, according to the proposal.

Take the serving size of raw, unsalted almonds. A quarter cup contains about 15 grams of fat. However, it has only one gram of saturated fat - the unhealthy fat - whereas it contains about 14 grams of the healthy fat, called unsaturated fat.

Including the total vitamins A and C in a product will be optional, instead of required, as deficiencies of such vitamins are uncommon, the proposal states. Instead, vitamin D and potassium levels will be added to reflect two nutrients that Americans may not be getting enough of. The first plays a vital role in bone health, while the second helps lower blood pressure.

Added sugars will be included below total sugars. These are deemed "empty calories," providing no additional nutritional value, according to the proposal and to organizations such as the American Heart Association, World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association responded to the proposed changes, agreeing that nutritional labels were in need of an upgrade.

"It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science," its statement reads. "Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers."

Yet, education is needed to help Americans understand the meaning behind the different fats, sugars and nutrients on the updated labels, Flaherty said.

Carroll County Public Schools begins teaching the basics behind nutrition labels in the second grade. Then, the information is repeated all the way through freshman year of high school, the last year health class is required, according to Dawn Rathgeber, the school system's assistant supervisor of health education.

But the onus is still on the buyer to use the information to choose healthier products.

"The label can help you compare food to food. It can help you make informed food choices," Flaherty said, "but the consumer has to ultimately change their behavior if they see something that does have a lot of sugar or fat. They have to use that information."

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