Get ready for a reminder of how bad your food is, with every purchase

With the Food and Drug Administration set to unveil its first update in 20 years to the ubiquitous nutrition label on Thursday, it’s worth taking a look at how other countries label their food. Given the major advances in the science of nutrition in recent years, health advocates say the U.S. system is long overdue for change.

The nutrition labels on your food are getting an overhaul for the first time in 20 years as the FDA plans to make them easier to read. Here's what you need to know. (The Washington Post)

One of the more radical proposals involves more prominent placement of nutrition information. Studies have shown that most consumers remain confused about labels and that labels placed on the front of a container or package, rather than the side, get more eyeballs. Food manufacturers in the United States have resisted such an overhaul, but here's how it works in other countries:

 United Kingdom: The country has a voluntary, front-of-pack label that uses a traffic light system to inform consumers of the amount of calories, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. Red = bad. Green = good. Amber = somewhere in between.


Australia: In 2013, the country approved an at-a-glance, front-of-the-package label that will use a star rating that goes from a half star to five stars. The more stars, the healthier the food. The rating system will also include informational icons for energy, saturated fat, salt and sugars. Studies have shown that more prominent placement of labels means more eyeballs. The label is voluntary, but the government has said it would consider making it mandatory if insufficient numbers of food manufacturers use it.


Sweden, Denmark and Norway: These countries use a voluntary "keyhole" system to help consumers identify healthier choices. They can only be used on food that contain less fat, sugars and salt and have more dietary fiber than other products of the same type. Among the foods that are eligible are bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, meat and shellfish.


Here are some of the things health advocates have been pushing for in the United States:

  • More realistic serving sizes. Right now if you drink an 8-ounce can of Arizona Green Tea with Ginseng and Honey, for instance, you might assume from a quick glance at the nutrition label that you're consuming one serving, or 70 calories. But the can actually contains three servings. Consumers have grumbled that the same issue applies to supposedly "individual" packs of snacks that are labeled as containing two or more servings so that the counts of calories, fat and any other unpleasantness people may want to avoid are kept as low as possible.
  • Calorie counts that are easier to read.
  • More clarity on "added sugars." The Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups have been pushing the FDA to redesign the label to help consumers figure out how much sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars have been added to foods or beverages when they are processed, as opposed to naturally-occurring sugars. Food companies have argued that that’s not necessary.
Ariana Eunjung Cha is a national reporter for the Post. She has previously served as the newspaper’s bureau chief in Beijing, Shanghai and San Francisco, a correspondent in Baghdad and as a tech reporter based in Washington.
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