SAN JOSE -- It's happened to Chryste Durocher before. She picks up a bag of chips, eats the whole thing, feels guilty, then squints at the label to add up the damage.

"You're like, dang," the San Jose mother of two teenagers said. "I just ate for my whole entire family."

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration announced a get-real overhaul of nutrition labeling -- the first change in two decades -- so consumers no longer have to calculate the fine print. The proposed changes not only reflect our propensity for bigger portions, they would blow out the print size of calorie counts to help us better battle the bulge.

Because, really, who eats only a half cup of ice cream in one sitting? The new labels would increase that single serving to one cup -- and double the calorie count along with it. It's not that the government is encouraging Americans to eat twice as much but rather to be aware of how much they're really eating.

"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," said first lady Michelle Obama, who joined the FDA in announcing the proposed changes at the White House as part of the fourth anniversary of her "Let's Move" initiative to combat child obesity.


Advertisement

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg called the new labels "a more user-friendly version." Along with changing serving sizes and calorie counts, the labels would also make clear whether manufacturers added extra sugar.

Two different looks are being considered, including one that groups nutrients into a "quick facts" category for things like fat, carbohydrates, sugars and proteins. An "avoid too much" category would list saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar. A "get enough" section would tout vitamin D, potassium, calcium, iron and fiber. The new labels might add potassium and vitamin D, nutrients that most Americans need more of in their diets.

And the new labels wouldn't act as if we're really splitting that 20-ounce soda into 2.5 servings: Both 12-ounce and 20-ounce sodas would be considered one serving, with clear calorie counts for each. So would a bag of chips, can of soup or frozen entree.

After a public comment period and what is expected to be some resistance from the food industry, backers hope the new labels will appear on store shelves within three years at a cost of some $2 billion to the food industry.

Bay Area politicians and health experts welcomed the news.

"I'm ecstatic," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who has led efforts in his county to improve public health, including requiring fast food restaurants to list calories. "Hopefully, the food industry will start manufacturing healthier foods because people will know how unhealthy it is and hopefully it leads to better nutrition and diet for Americans."

A third of American adults are overweight or obese and medical costs are soaring because of it.

Marjorie Freedman, an associate professor at San Jose State specializing in obesity prevention and policy changes, said that "any change is good," but nutrition labels only go so far.

"All the research shows very few people read the label. They're confused by the label and they don't like to do math" to multiply calories by the servings, she said. Those who read the labels tend to be well-educated, middle-aged females, she said. Otherwise, most people make their food-buying decisions based on taste.

"That's why we have a food supply that is high in added sugar and fat because that's what tastes good," Freedman said. "It remains to be seen whether looking at the package and seeing how many added sugars there are will drive down the amount of purchases."

Grocery shoppers around the Bay Area on Thursday had mixed reactions.

In Walnut Creek, Whole Foods shopper Tracy Phillips, 54, said she constantly scans labels for nutritional information and supports plans to make calorie counts more prominent on labels.

"Obesity is such a problem. So many of us struggle with it," she said. "Any improvement that can be made to nutritional labels that can help us be better consumers is a great idea."

At Zanotto's Family Market in San Jose, however, Elizabeth Belloli, 37, was skeptical new labels will do much good.

"I'm responsible for my own portion control," she said. "I should know a whole bag is more than one serving. It's OK if it's clear, but what does that do? Why don't they make smaller bags that are one portion? People eat what they want to eat, not what they should. And not too many pay attention."

Durocher, who is cutting back on her chip consumption, says that better labeling is a good idea, but willpower, more than labeling, will change her eating habits. She's already stopped buying bread to cut down on carbs. She and her family know what is healthy and what isn't, no matter the serving size.

"We didn't just fall off the turnip truck," she said.

But Supervisor Yeager says giving consumers better information is a positive.

"The obesity crisis didn't happen overnight and it's not going to be solved overnight," Yeager said. "It's going to be solved one meal at a time."

Staff writer Jennifer Modenessi and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.