Change is coming to the nutrition labels that packaged foods and beverages have carried for the past two years. The proposed changes, for which the Food and Drug Administration is taking comments, are designed to provide essential, real-life information in an easier-to-read format. The final version of the changes is at least a couple of years down the road.
The announcement came amid a flurry of nutritional news late last month. The Obama administration announced new rules to phase out promotion of sugary drinks and junk foods on school campuses, in line with health standards that already apply to foods served under the National School Lunch Program. The beverage industry is on board with the changes, which would mean a scoreboard that now advertises a sugary soft drink eventually could advertise a diet version — though diet drinks come with their own concerns, such as artificial sweeteners — or bottled water.
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a 43 percent drop in the obesity rate among children ages 2-5 in the past decade. Childhood obesity signals lifelong weight issues, and the news marked the first decline since obesity became identified as a problem in the last half of the last century.
A number of questions emerge from all this. A couple of them: Will the nutrition-label change be good? And are all the efforts to combat obesity actually working? Definitive answers are difficult to find so far, but there’s enough to imply that the answers are yes and yes.
As envisioned, the new nutritional labels will feature calorie counts more prominently, display information like fat and sodium content more clearly, list any sugars added by manufacturers and include advice about what to avoid, such as too much saturated fat. Also important — and frequently overlooked — is the serving size. The new labels will increase serving sizes to reflect research about how much people actually eat, and calorie counts will rise in accordance with the larger servings.
The obesity epidemic has developed over decades, and reversing it likewise will take time. Consumers, of course, can choose to ignore labels, but the information is valuable for those who use it.
And while there is no consensus about the reasons behind the drop in childhood obesity, health officials believe that parents are watching their children’s diets more closely. Parents are serving fewer sugary drinks, more mothers are breastfeeding, families are buying lower-calorie items, government food programs are emphasizing whole fruits and vegetables, and more restaurants — even fast-food outlets — are offering healthier alternatives.
All of these efforts, consistently repeated over time, appear to be taking hold. At the very least, there is more evidence to keep doing what we’re doing than to change course or even stop them altogether. Obesity plays a role in many chronic and fatal diseases that disproportionately affect residents of the Yakima Valley; we need to reinforce that healthy-eating message that appears to be taking hold.
•Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.