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David A.Kessler, M.D - New Food Label Media Briefing

Remarks by
David A.Kessler, M.D

Commissioner of Food and Drugs
New Food Label Media Briefing
Marriott Marquis
New York City, New York
March 2, 1994

It's a pleasure to be here today. I am joined by Dr. Ed Scarbrough, the Director of the Office of Food Labeling--Ed has played a key role in the development of the food labeling regulations for the last five years.

I'm sure you have all been to brown bag briefings before. But I think this one is a little different. Today, the brown bag, or rather what is in the brown bag, is literally the subject of the briefing.

There's an old saying: "Seeing is believing." Well, today, my goal is to make believers out of all of you. I want you to leave here seeing for yourselves how the new food label really does allow people to make healthier food choices quickly and easily.

I want you to see that the new food label really does work.

As the new labels began appearing on grocery store shelves last year, FDA staffers began bringing in the products and showing them to each other. Every day became a sort of "show and tell." You have no idea how excited FDAers became when we saw the first new food label and compared it to what had been there before.

Today I want to re-create that excitement for you so you can help us educate the American public on how to read the new food label.

You will notice a basket on each of your tables with the same foods that I have here. As I discuss each food, please take it out of our basket, look at it and pass is around.

I have one request. Please bear in mind that these foods are merely intended to illustrate how consumers can use the new label. I ask you not to focus on the specific brands or products.

The first thing that's different about the new food label is that it's readable. (Picks up bag of potato chips and creamed style corn.)

You see how the new label really leaps out at you? See how it looks like something someone wants you to read instead of an obscure and cluttered footnote designed to be ignored?

Look at how the new label is set off from the rest of the package. The new body type is emphatic. The print is big enough so that everyone can easily read it. The format is simple but contains an enormous amount of information.

The key nutrients are in bold. And the information typically of most concern to people; calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, is listed first.

Just compare this old label, (holds up tomato soup) to this new one, (holds up new product tomato sauce) and the difference is night and day.

Now you can see that one of the most important aspects of the new food label is the column called "% Daily Value" on the far right-hand side.

This is the most striking departure from the old food label.

This places all the nutrients on the same scale-- % Daily Value--but what does that mean?

(Holds up burgers.)

This is 50% fat. If you eat two of these cheeseburgers you're at your daily allotment for fat. Thus % Daily Values provides a new nutrition reference tool that allows you to quickly and easily determine whether a food contributes a lot or a little of a particular nutrient like fat or sodium.

And the 5% rule of thumb makes it even easier. If the percent daily value is five or less, it's low in that nutrient-- it means that the food contributes a small amount of that nutrient to your diet.

Say you are interested in choosing foods that are low in fat. Just check this column. If the percent daily value is five or less it means it is low in fat. And because all the nutrients are on the same scale, five percent or less also means it is low in sodium or cholesterol.

Forget the math, there's no need to do any calculations. Take a minute to find the % Daily Values on a few different foods. It really tells you what's in a food and you don't have to be a nutritionist to understand.

Research shows that most people use the label to determine one of two things. One, whether a single food is high or low in a particular nutrient and, two, how two foods compare in particular nutrients.

The % Daily Value column is the place people should go to answer either of these questions.

Let's look at this package of chocolate candy. (Holds up package.) For the moment, ignore the % Daily Value column. What do you see? Total fat is 12 grams. Saturated fat is 8 grams. Total carbohydrates is 23 grams. What would most people conclude? Probably that this chocolate candy is high in total carbohydrates because 23 is the biggest of these numbers. And that it is actually sort of in the middle for fat or saturated fat.

Now, take a look at the % Daily Value column. The picture changes dramatically, doesn't it? Look at this. Fat is 19 percent, saturated fat is 39 percent and carbohydrates is 8 percent. That 39 percent really leaps out at you. It means that almost 40 percent of the recommended amount of saturated fat you should have in one day is right there in one serving of the chocolate candy.

Okay, so now you're thinking "does this mean I can't have any chocolate if I want to eat a healthy diet?" Not at all. First, you can choose the chocolate candy but you should try to choose foods for the rest of the day that are low in saturated fat. Another option is not to eat a whole serving.

Or, you may wish to choose another type of chocolate candy.

Pick up the other bag of chocolate candy rolls and once again, look at the % Daily Value column. Both the fat and the saturated fat are under 5 percent. So, here are two types of chocolate candies, foods within the same snack category, and they vary considerably in terms of the level of fat and saturated fat.

Let's move on. I'd like to show you how different people can use the label to look for different things based on their personal needs. (Holds up pretzels and chips)

Let's say you're in the mood for a snack and you are trying to decide between pretzels and potato chips. Say you have high blood pressure and your doctor has told you to watch your sodium, you're salt sensitive. (Holds up bag of potato chips.)

Now look at the % Daily Value column and you see potato chips is 7% Daily Value for sodium.

You compare it to pretzels which you see is 47%. Clearly, chips are significantly lower in sodium than pretzels.

Say instead that your main concern is fat. (Holds up bag of pretzels) Here you find that chips are 25% Daily Value while pretzels are 3%. What choice will you make now? This demonstrates how different people looking at the same information may make totally different choices based on their personal needs.

The point is that the label does not dictate which food to eat--it simply gives people an easy, quick way to make important choices that are right for them.

Let's talk about sodium a little more. Sodium allows us to really see why the % Daily Value is so vital.

(Holds up cream cheese package.)

Look at the container of Cream Cheese. Look only at the mgs--which was all you were given in the old label--it shows 90 mgs. Research shows that the average consumer would look at this number and compare it to the other absolute numbers, like 30 mgs of cholesterol, or 6 grams of saturated fat. Even though some numbers are in mgs, others in grams, the average consumer assumes the biggest number means the product is highest in that nutrient.

Now, look at the % Daily Value on the cream cheese package. It sets the picture straight. In fact, this food is relatively low in sodium -- 4% Daily Value. And it is highest in saturated fat even though the absolute number of 6 grams would probably lead consumers to conclude otherwise.

Again, the percent Daily Value is the best tool for allowing consumers to quickly and more accurately assess the nutritional value of different foods.

Besides the % Daily Values, let me tell you one other truly significant thing about the new food label. I'm referring to what we've done to the serving size. First, these are real-life serving sizes, and second, they are listed in household and metric units so you know what they mean.

(Holds up a can of soda.)

Did anyone ever really just drink half of this can of soda and save the rest? I never did. And now, this is considered a single serving, because that's what it really is.

The new food label is a new public health tool of enormous potential. It can help bring about a shift in the American diet that will be good for everyone's health.

It can encourage the production and reformulation of foods that are lower in fat and sodium, for example.

A consumer who knows the true facts about products is much more likely to make healthy buying choices than a consumer who is kept in the dark, or who is deceived by exaggerated claims.

That is why we worked so hard to be sure that the claims on the front of the package like "low-fat" or "high-fiber" are truthful.

In this era of health care reform, the new food label can give the average American consumer one of the easiest and least expensive ways to make choices that can prolong their lives and prevent illness.

But the new food label can perform these functions only to the extent that our public knows there is a new label and gives it a chance.

We at the FDA realize that by designing the new label, our job has only begun. Now we must make the label as routine to consult as a wall calendar, a TV guide, or a road map. We need to make it an integral part of our daily living.

The FDA is working on it. Around May 8, the day that manufacturers are required to put the new label on their packages, you will see brochures, public service announcements on television, signs at ball parks, and public officials and others telling Americans about the new food label.

But the new era in food labeling will only reach its potential if the media -- meaning you, and other writers and editors -- pick up the message and make it their own.

That is why my colleagues and I are here today. We will be glad to answer your questions.