Food nutrition labels are about to change. What does that mean for the fight against obesity?

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In a post on the Food and Drug Administration's official blog Friday, FDA commissioner Robert M. Califf announced the agency had finalized new designs for the Nutrition Facts labels that appear on packaged foods.

"Our goal is to help people make better informed food choices that support a healthy diet," he wrote. "The changes are based on updated science that reinforces the link between diet and chronic conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes."


Speaking at an event highlighting the labels in Washington, D.C., Friday, First Lady Michelle Obama said, "Very soon you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food that you're buying is actually good for your kids, so that's a phenomenal achievement."

The new labels, which manufacturers have until July 2018 to fully implement, will feature bigger type and additional information about caloric and sugar content as well as more accurate serving size information.


"For packages that are between one and two servings, such as a 20-ounce soda or a 15-ounce can of soup, the calories and other nutrients will be required to be labeled as one serving because people typically consume it in one sitting," the FDA said in a statement.

All told, these labels are designed to assist in the fight against obesity, especially among the groups most vulnerable to that disease: people of color and those in poverty. But will they?

The link between income-scarce individuals and families and obesity is strong. University of Washington assistant professor of sociology Hedwig Lee writes, "obesity is especially rampant among Americans with the lowest levels of education and the highest poverty rates."


The reasoning behind the link between poverty and obesity is simple enough, Hedwig says, because income scarcity means less money to spend on food and therefore food budgets must be stretched:

Families choose high-fat foods dense with energy–foods such as sugars, cereals, potatoes and processed meat products–because these foods are more affordable and last longer than fresh vegetables and fruits and lean meats and fish.


Further, "healthy" foods are frequently less available in low-income neighborhoods. Here's Hedwig Lee, again:

Instead of large supermarkets, poor neighborhoods have a disproportionate number of fast food chains and small food stores providing cheap, high-fat foods.


There is a great disparity between obesity rates among black people (47.8% for adults, 20.2% for children), those of Latino descent (42.5% for adults, 22.4% for children), and white people (32.6% for adults, 14.3% for children.)

Poverty in the United States also features a severe racial disparity. According to University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy research:

In the U.S., one of every three African American children and one of every four Latino children live in poverty—two times higher than the rate for white children.


Dr. Beth Olson, Associate Professor & Extension Specialist at the University of Wisconsin's Department of Nutritional Sciences, isn't entirely sold on whether or not the labels will help fight obesity. In an email, she notes that the labels will help people compare similar packaged foods, like cereal or soup, to see which has the nutrients they need or contains things, like high levels of sodium, they are supposed to avoid.

"I don't know that the label will particularly help those that are lower income," she writes, because lower-income people will still have less access to affordable, fresh foods. "In the past it could be confusing whether that single package was actually more than one serving.  [The] changes make that more clear, and also make the calories more obvious," she said.


The lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables is more important than labeling changes, according to Dr. Olson, but there is a silver lining. "To the extent consumers are aware of what is in food and 'vote' on quality with their food dollars, the label can help shift the composition of foods," she said. One example she refers to is manufacturers removing trans fats and indicating as such on their labels after consumers demanded it.

"Once someone sees that most of the calories in a food they ate is added sugar, they may change their choice," she adds. So, if pre-packaged foods are healthier, that will help, but ultimately what's needed is better access to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as more nutrition education. And for consumers to rely less on prepackaged food in the first place.


Ultimately, it appears the new labels will help with the fight against obesity, but only marginally. Consumers will have a clearer understanding of the overall healthiness of the food, but still be purchasing prepackaged food items. There are a great number of ways to reduce obesity in the United States, but adding new labels will only accomplish so much.

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