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Report calls for revamping nutrition fact labels

By Elizabeth Lee

Cox News Service

Americans don't get enough guidance from food labels to make the best decisions about eating healthfully, a new Institute of Medicine report says.

The report calls for revamping nutrition fact labels on food packages, based on nutritional guidelines from 1968, to help consumers cut their risks of heart disease and other diet-related chronic disorders.

Some of the strongest recommendations come in urging regulatory agencies to reduce daily allowances of cholesterol, saturated fats and trans fats to as low a level as possible and to set one combined daily limit for saturated and trans-fatty acids. That could mean recommending consumers eat as little as half the daily amount of saturated fat currently recommended -- about what's in a cup of whole milk or a 5-ounce New York strip steak.

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The report also recommends giving consumers more advice about added and naturally occurring sugars in food and how sugary calories impact the total diet. And it proposes changing the way recommended daily values of vitamins and minerals are listed on labels, suggesting that they be based on the needs of an average American rather than those who may need higher levels.

It stops short of recommending specific limits for sugars or a combination of saturated and trans fats. Instead, it calls on the regulatory agencies that commissioned the report to set daily allowances for cholesterol, trans fat and saturated fat "at a limit that is as low as possible in keeping with an achievable, health-promoting diet." Providing more information on sugars should be an "urgent consideration," it says.

The recommendations on fats, cholesterol and sugars are likely to draw opposition from the food industry.

The report, commissioned by the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health Canada, was put together by a panel of scientists and nutritionists, some with food industry ties.

"I think it will result in changes in the label. The question is, how quickly? We're hoping it won't take too long," says Jerry Mande, a member of the Institute of Medicine committee and associate director for policy at Yale Cancer Center at Yale University School of Medicine.

The soonest that new labels might appear would be three years, says Virginia Wilkening, deputy director for FDA's office of nutritional products, labeling and dietary supplements. The USDA, which regulates labels on meat and poultry products, also would be involved in establishing new regulations.

"It is a major initiative, and we need to take the time to do it right," Wilkening says.

The FDA is studying food labels in a separate effort to determine how they might be changed to promote healthier diets and reduce obesity. But this report was commissioned in response to a 2002 revamping of dietary nutrient recommendations by another Institute of Medicine committee. This latest report provides advice on how to work those guidelines into nutrition labels. Suggested changes are being closely monitored by the food industry and consumer advocates. Telling Americans to eat less fat when they're already not meeting current recommendations -- to consume less than 10 percent of daily calories from saturated fat -- requires too drastic a change, industry representatives say.

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"Changes made to fat consumption have to be realistic in light of where Americans are today," says Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a food and beverage trade group. "Radical changes to their diet or the dietary recommendations could turn consumers off to doing the simple steps that can get them where they'll be healthier."

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