The federal Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recently proposed changes to national nutrition labels will be open for public comment for the next three months, but Susquehanna Health Clinical Dietitian Michelle Underwood already embraces the changes as valuable to improving lives and reducing obesity and health care costs.
Changes to the format and content of the labels would make the calorie count and servings per container more prominent while providing more realistic serving sizes, updating the daily values, including added sugars and listing Vitamin D and potassium among the required nutrients.
"I'm very excited about the proposed changes," said Underwood. "They are long overdue."
Underwood's work in nutrition counseling reveals that despite research indicating more Americans are reading nutrition labels, many are often unclear about what the contents mean and how to apply the information to their daily diet.
Underwood said emphasizing total calories in larger, bolder type size, as well as the inclusion of added sugars are, two important upgrades.
Underwood's hope is that a more accurate representation of serving sizes will encourage discretion in the quantity of food an individual consumes. "I think the changes to portion size will have an eye-opening effect. Hopefully, they will help someone think twice about eating an entire package of snacks or drinking an entire bottle of soda," she said.
"Minimizing added sugars has been an important focus since new guidelines were issued in 2010," Underwood explained. "There is a difference between natural sugars and sugars added in processing. These added sugars have been found to be a contributing factor in our nation's obesity epidemic."
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that greater than a third of Americans are obese.
Another plus, in Underwood's opinion, is the inclusion of the percentage of potassium under the listing of vitamins and minerals. "The addition of potassium will be helpful to our patients who need to monitor their intake due to conditions such as kidney disease," she explained.
Underwood believes enabling consumers to make better choices will have a positive residual effect that will improve health while reducing health care costs in general.
Underwood also said it seems reasonable that manufacturers will respond by improving product content to meet consumer demand.
She cited the trans fat controversy a few years ago, and recent cases - including demands for changes to be made by Subway restaurants and Kraft Foods manufacturers - as proof.
Although the FDA is projecting a $2 billion investment from the food industry to incorporate the change, Underwood contends that capital will produce a tremendous return on investment for fighting chronic disease and improving lives.
"Lifestyle changes will show marked reductions in health care costs down the road," she said. "It is much less expensive to educate someone about making important lifestyle changes than it is for triple bypass surgery."
As a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, Underwood is impressed by the strides being made nationally by Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign to reduce obesity.
"The USDA's Choose My Plate tool, as well as other free resources available on choosemyplate.gov and letsmove.gov, are valuable for helping families develop healthy eating habits," Underwood said. "In my line of work, I often help people to better manage chronic diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, but my overall desire is to help people live healthy lives."
The health system's efforts to help employees, patients, family members and the community to focus on healthy lifestyle choices include everything from healthy food menus in cafeterias to patient and community outreach education programs.
In support of March's National Nutrition Month, ARAMARK at Susquehanna Health recently introduced a new health and wellness program in the cafeterias at each of its hospital campuses to support the people who use those food services.
The Healthy for Life program features healthy food, nutrition education and wellness programs that support healthy environments to encourage healthier lifestyles.