How nutrition label overhaul will work

First lady Michelle Obama on Thursday announced the most significant makeover to nutrition labels in 20 years.

“A lot has changed in the past 20 years. Consider all of the new information we learned about nutrition and healthy eating during that time period. Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” she said from the White House’s East Room.

Americans currently need a “thesaurus, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition” to figure out which food products are healthy, she said.

“It’s simply not acceptable,” said Obama. “We’ve overhauling these labels to make them easier to read and understand. “

Obama has been promoting healthy eating for children as part of her "Let’s Move" initiative, which she started four years ago in an effort to combat childhood obesity.

Under the administration proposal, serving size requirements will change for certain foods to reflect the amounts people eat. Companies will be required to include the amount of added sugars in food products on labels. The number of calories will also be featured more prominently on labels.

Administration officials say the plan to change labels would cost about $2 billion and reap benefits of $20 billion to $30 billion over the next few decades.

This would mark only the second major change to nutrition facts since companies were first required in 1994 to include them on their products. Labels last underwent a significant update in 2006, when the Food and Drug Administration required companies to display trans fat content.

The first lady was joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg for the announcement.

Sebelius said the Obama administration is introducing these sweeping changes in an effort to reverse the country's obesity rate, which she said tripled from the 1970s to 2008.

The announcement comes just two days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that found a 43 percent drop in obesity rates among 2- to 5-year-olds since 2004.

There is no “silver bullet,” Sebelius said, to reducing childhood obesity, but “simple changes to food labels can make a big difference.” 

Not only will consumers be better informed about what they’re eating, said Hamburg, but food companies might change their products altogether.

“We also hope this change will motivate the food industry to reformulate its products,” she said.

Of 157 food categories, the proposal would change serving sizes for about 27, and would add 25 food categories. 

Serving sizes would change for soda and ice cream, for example. A current serving size of ice cream is half a cup, but administration officials say most people eat about a cup, and the new labels will reflect that.

Yogurt, by contrast, would have its serving size decreased from eight to six ounces because most food packaging is available in the smaller amount.

The daily sodium value will be slightly reduced as well, from 2,400 to 2,300 milligrams.

The administration also wants companies to substitute Vitamin A and C amounts with potassium and iron content on products.

Officials say they plan to discuss the proposals with the nutrition science community and the consumer industry before a final rule is issued. The comment period will open Thursday for 90 days and is available for the public to weigh in on. 

Once the final rule takes effect, companies would be required to implement the new changes within two years. 

Officials haven’t set a firm deadline for the process and emphasized this is just the beginning. They say a final rule could be issued by next year, and that companies could begin rolling out the new labels in 2016.

“We are nowhere near the end of this road. But with every little bit that we do, we can make a big difference,” the first lady said.