In one of the largest nutritional cleanups in the last twenty years, an estimated $2 billion will be spent on an intended relabeling scheme designed to help Americans make better food choices.


Some of the proposed changes will include clearer calorie counts and more accurate serving sizes that actually reflect how much the average person eats. An “added sugars” inclusion is also something the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wish to implement based on mounting evidence that such products are “nutritionally void” and can contribute to weight gain when consumed in excess.


The underlying aim is for this to generate a two-way effect reshaping how the food industry treats consumers and how a consumer approaches the food they buy. If nutritional labels become more demanding, the added transparency creates a need to market the food more responsibly and therefore, hopefully, more healthily. Likewise, the informed consumer will in turn become more selective and moderate when it comes to everyday food choices. 


On paper such plans may be a welcome kick-start in a country said to be suffering an obesity epidemic, but are they really capable of turning things around?


When in less than 40 years the occurrence of obesity has soared by over 50 percent producing two out of every three adults who are either overweight or obese, something is clearly wrong.


Nutritional labels serve to provide clear and quick access to the dietary value of a given food product. The current label is already very detailed though. There is an overall fat content, including the amount of saturated and trans fats. Calorie values are equal to serving size and show what portion of these come from fats. The protein, carbohydrate, sugar, fibre and sodium amounts are also given, with an added demarcation for occuring nutrients. Each category is then presented in percentage amounts so that a person can immediately see how much of their daily nutritional value is being fulfilled by the food they eat. At the bottom of the label a general nutritional guideline is offered based on a 2,000 calorie diet stressing, that the given values may vary from person to person.


But if informative nutritional labels were the key to a healthy diet and weight control, the original labelling system introduced 20 years ago would have been sufficient. In the past, fats, especially of the saturated kind were considered the biggest culprit of weight gain and heart disease. Now the attention has shifted to sugars and calories in general. However, if we look to science for reassurance the information is conflicting and inconclusive. Some experiments suggest that sugars and carbohydrates on their own remain relatively harmless; it is only when they are combined with fats and in a relatively equal 50:50 ratio that problems begin.


Science then to this day has been unable to reveal the ultimate cause of obesity most probably because no such singular cause exists. It is most likely due to a combination of factors, including excess calorie consumption and a significant lack of physical activity. The average American is said to watch over 34 hours of television a week with an additional three to six hours of taped programmes. Whether this reveals a deeper issue of needing to escape from the daily challenges of work and mounting stress levels is a separate, though equally relevant question. The bottom line however, is that the average American prefers to spend his free time in pursuit of leisure rather than health, and that is something to think about.


Then there is the food industry itself and its guiding need to keep the public wanting more. It has already been suggested that one’s taste for certain foods may not be entirely due to preference but the presence of addictive ingredients which also happen to be cheap. High-fructose corn syrup is one such ingredient found in many soft drinks. Between 1985 and 2010 beverages containing this substance have seen a fall in prices by 24 percent and the average child now consumes an extra 130 calories more daily from these sugary concoctions. Casein, a milk protein found in many processed foods, is another offender which when broken down turns into casomorphin helping to induce pleasurable sensations in the brain.   


The average American suffers from a lot of things and obesity is just one of them. The idea that this problem can be handled with a comprehensive nutritional label is wishful thinking. Food corporations are predominantly driven by the desire for profit and people buy processed foods because life is complicated and time often wanting. There is arguably an absence of sound understanding regarding good nutrition but also a general lack of concern about it. Health quite simply, is not a priority for many average Americans – and who can blame them.     

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