Major change in U.S. food labels is likely to help healthiest the most

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The biggest overhaul of U.S. food nutrition labels in more than two decades is likely to help improve the diets of the most health-conscious consumers, but others may need more convincing.

Public health advocates welcomed the new rules but said some of the groups most at risk for obesity and diet-related illness may not change habits without other measures to discourage sugar consumption, such as taxes on sugar and food advertising warning labels.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday announced new Nutrition Facts packaged food label rules that include disclosure of how much sugar is added to thousands of processed foods ranging from soda to spaghetti sauce.

Curbing excess sugar consumption is key to whittling waist lines in the United States, where more than one-third of adults are obese, and to reducing the prevalence of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Roughly two-thirds of adults already are trying to cut back on their sugar intake, said Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst for The NPD Group, a New York-based market research company.

“This might actually have an effect. Sugar is the focal point for consumers right now,” Seifer said.

Food industry groups, many of which had fought the new rules, said they would comply with the changes. That included the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry group whose members include food and beverage companies, which said that consumers could be confused by the changes and would need education.

A review of research from several countries, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition in 2011, found a consistent link between the use of nutrition labels and healthier diets, but wide differentiation in how groups responded to labels.

“It’s a useful tool for those who are really educated and concerned, and has zero effect on the population most at need,” said Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Popkin and Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, said labels would be more effective when combined with other measures.

Chile has banned the use of toys to market food to children, for instance, and Mexico, the U.K. and some U.S. jurisdictions tax soda. A new San Francisco law requires health warning labels on public advertisements for sugary beverages.

“I don’t think anyone expects that the labels themselves will be sufficient. Lots of other interventions will be necessary,” Brownell said.

Experts noted that big behavioral changes could come if the new rules prompt food makers to rework their recipes. After the FDA began requiring trans fat information on nutrition labels in 2006, many food makers responded by cutting artificial trans fats, which increases heart disease risk, from their products.

By the FDA’s own estimates, artificial trans fat consumption fell 78 percent between 2003 and 2012.

Additional reporting by Melissa Fares in New York