msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/12/2004 5:36:08 PM ET 2004-03-12T22:36:08

How many calories are in that 20 oz. soft drink you're gulping for lunch? Would you believe a staggering 275 calories? It's hard to tell from reading labels on soda bottles today.

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That's why the Food and Drug Administration said Friday it would ask food manufacturers and some restaurants to label food more clearly so that ever-fatter Americans can easily figure out how many calories they are getting in a serving.

The FDA also said it would consider stricter labeling requirements for packaged food and for some restaurant labels.

The steps, disclosed against a backdrop of increasing alarm over obesity in America, were outlined at a news conference and in a new agency report offering recommendations for stricter, clearer future food-label regulations.

Counting calories is a challenge for consumers. For now, officials said, the FDA will ask food manufacturers to make it clear, for instance, that a small packet of chips now marked as three servings of 100 calories each is actually a single serving of 300 calories.

It will also consider moves that would make the hard-to-read print on labels larger and easier to read.

“The report by FDA’s Obesity Working Group includes recommendations to strengthen food labeling, to educate consumers about maintaining a healthy diet and weight and to encourage restaurants to provide calorie and nutrition information,” the FDA said in a statement.

At the news conference, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the report “also recommends increasing enforcement to ensure food labels accurately portray serving size, revising and reissuing guidance on developing obesity drugs and strengthening coordinated scientific research to reduce obesity and to develop foods that are healthier and low in calories.”

“We are going to get a lot of voluntary compliance,” Thompson added, saying his department had already begun talking with chain restaurants, for example.

Correct, honest and informative
“We want to make sure the labeling, say, for a 20-ounce bottle of soda is really right for the average American,” Thompson said. Food labels, he added, must be correct, honest and informative.

Among the recommendations:

—Changing food labels to list calories in larger type, easier to see at a glance, and to list the percent of consumers’ daily allotment of calories a serving of each food brings. In the 20-ounce soft-drink example, those 275 calories would be 14 percent of a typical person’s daily allotment.

FDA wouldn’t say how soon it would propose regulations necessary for that change.

—Making foods like chips and soft drinks, which most people eat all at once even though they contain two or more “servings,” list the product’s total calories. For example, 20-ounce soft drinks today are labeled as having 2½ servings and 110 calories per serving, requiring consumers to compute total calorie consumption.

FDA wrote food makers Friday urging that they make that change immediately, although it’s not mandatory.

—Urging all restaurants to list calories on menus.

Food labels now lay out how many calories there are per serving, how many servings are in the package, how much fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, sugar, fiber and protein it contains and details of some key vitamins.

The moves come just days after government statistics showed that obesity and a lack of exercise are quickly overtaking smoking as the leading cause of death in the United States.

More than 30 percent of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That translates to about 59 million people, all at high risk of heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

The CDC says that in 2000, poor diet and physical inactivity caused 400,000 deaths.

In response, the government stressed personal responsibility, launching an advertising campaign urging people to exercise more and eat more healthily, and Congress debated legislation to stop obese people from suing restaurants and food makers for making them fat.

But the FDA moves also place some responsibility on those who sell products.

That would be in line with recommendations from advisers. Last December the U.S. Federal Trade Commission urged another look at the serving sizes listed on food products, saying people may be underestimating how much they are eating.

Companies say they are already taking steps to meet increased public concern about more healthful eating. Kraft, the largest North American food company, says it will limit the size of some single-portion packages, such as Oreo cookies. 

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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