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FDA Urges More Realistic Calorie Listings

The agency calls for food nutrition labels to have serving sizes that reflect what consumers are likely to ingest.

March 13, 2004|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

To help Americans control their overeating, the Food and Drug Administration urged food packagers Friday to change their product labels so they reflect the number of calories someone is likely to consume in one sitting.

For instance, a beverage company should label a 20-ounce bottle of soda as containing 275 calories instead of 2.5 servings of 110 calories per serving -- as is often the case today -- since most people drink the whole bottle at one time.

The move is part of the FDA's new strategy for fighting obesity. It is aimed at teaching Americans to carefully consider calories when they choose what to eat, said FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford.

"America must get back to the basics," Crawford said. "There's no substitute for the basic message -- that calories in must equal calories out."

Crawford said the FDA has mailed letters to food manufacturing companies encouraging them to "take advantage of the flexibility in current regulations on serving sizes" to be more realistic in defining such servings.

The FDA working group responsible for the recommendations also proposed that the calorie content of foods be brought into sharper relief on food labels by increasing font size and stating the product's percentage of daily caloric needs.

Other proposals include encouraging the restaurant industry to clearly list caloric values of meals, enhancing public education about healthful eating and encouraging research into healthful new foods.

The agency's strategic plan against obesity came days after a scientific study reported that obesity is close to surpassing tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death. Deaths due to poor diet and inactivity increased 33% between 1990 and 2000, according to the study.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement that the government's proposals were "like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

"Relying on junk food marketers' self-policing is naive and one of the things that helped Americans waddle into the obesity epidemic in the first place," he said.

James Hill, director of the center for human nutrition at the University of Colorado, said that there was nothing wrong with highlighting calories but that the public needed a better way to understand what those numbers mean.

"Five hundred calories -- what does that tell you?" he said. "It would be better if you had something saying this amount of calories would require so many minutes of walking, for example, to burn off."

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