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Posted: March 06, 2014

Chef Laura: Food labels of the future

Portioning out some knowledge

Laura Cook Newman

Unless you live in Arizona or Hawaii, the changing of the clocks for Daylight Savings Time tends to sneak up on us and cause mass confusion for a day or two. 

We’ve grown to accept this disruption in our lives and adapt accordingly.  I have a friend who adapts by intuitively subtracting one hour from the little digital clock in her car for seven months out of the year.  Problem solved!

Since Benjamin Franklin conceived the idea in 1784, DST has undergone more changes than Ellen DeGeneres’ wardrobe during Oscar-hosting duties. 

FDR implemented Daylight Savings year-round in 1942 to conserve energy during WWII.  But it continued to be tinkered and tweaked over the years.  In 2007 the current schedule was proposed where we spring one hour forward the second Sunday in March and fall one hour back the first Sunday in November. 

Government intervention resulting in frequent modification and mass confusion has also been applied to US food labels.  You know, those cryptic words and numbers on the side of the Cheerios’ box that you numbly read in the morning waiting for coffee’s caffeine to kick in.

A brief history…

In an attempt to keep folks honest, Abraham Lincoln launched the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Chemistry in 1862. This was the predecessor to what we now know as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

As recently as 1990 and before, packaged foods were not required to have nutritional labels and consistent health claims.  That didn’t sit well with consumers who felt bamboozled by false claims of “light” and “lowfat”.  So the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act passed.

By 1991, the FDA had it all figured out and called the label “Nutrition Facts”.  It included the nutritional nuts and bolts about a packaged food.  For example, the energy yielded (aka calories) based on a miniscule ½ cup serving size of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.

That same year, I was a college freshman putzing around Burlington, Vermont and took a tour of the Ben & Jerry’s factory.  Back then, they were developing the mini cup: an adorable 3.6 oz container of ice cream, complete with its own spoon.  The tour guide mentioned “Consumers asked us to make a ‘single serve’ size, but we thought we already had,” holding the original pint high over head.

But seriously folks, nowadays, when we hear the word “epidemic” in America, we immediately think “obesity”, not “small pox”.  And that’s a good indicator to the White House that it’s time to tinker with those labels once again for fear that we might explode.

Last week, the FDA proposed a significant makeover to the Nutrition Facts label.  Apparently the government does not trust us to do basic math (270 calories per serving of B&J’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough x 4 servings = 1080 calories per pint!).  Or perhaps we don’t trust ourselves to scoop out 4 ounces of Chunky Monkey, and replace the unused portion back in the freezer.

The new labels, which will take a year or more to implement will have realistic serving sizes.  You would think selecting the flavor Chubby Hubby would indicate you’re in for a caloric wallop regardless of your ability to read the side panel. 

The facelift will also separate sugars that occur naturally in foods (fruits, veggies, and milk can have a lot of “sugar” in them) and the amount of added sugar, like high fructose corn syrup.

And no need to find your “readers”.  The point size of the calorie count will be BIG.  Consider the new and improved labels your wakeup call!

Will changing fonts and Honest Abe-like transparency be the vaccine to America’s obesity epidemic?  The government is banking on it as people with optimal weight put less strain on the healthcare system, saving Washington DC beaucoup bucks.

I applaud the FDA for trying to make nutrition user-friendly in attempts to create a healthier America.  But creating shiny new labels is the equivalent of Parliament advising Brits to carry a pocketful of posies to ward off the bubonic plague. 

I think back to my friend who won’t advance the clock in her car this Sunday for Daylight Savings Time. That simple change is a learned behavior that she never cared to learn, so she just “makes do.”  She represents the people who will never read a food label no matter how “simple” it looks. 

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at

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Readers Respond

I think that realistic serving size food labeling is a great idea, and a step in the right direction. No, not everyone reads labels or cares, but the publicity around this will influence more people to read labels. It's scary what's added to processed food that the body can't process so it turns into fat. The sugar in coke alone is scary: just over 9 teaspoons equivalency in a 12 oz can. Most people drink the 16 oz size! Keep up the publicity Chef Laura! By Ellen Naylor on 2014 03 10
Okay, so the frozen pizza sitting in my freezer says, serving size - 1 slice. Servings per container 6. Really? 6? I can eat the whole thing myself but now that awareness strikes, Ill just invite 5 of my friends over for pizza! By Ruben on 2014 03 07
I wonder how they decide how much a "serving" is. For anything, really. If the FDA doesn't already, maybe they should work backwards from the food pyramid or whatever the current model is and give the portion suggestion from that matrix. Just a thought. By Ted on 2014 03 06
I'm happy to see this has stirred up some "healthy" discussion about our nation's need for healthier solutions. And although a new label isn't the be-all-end-all fix, at least it will get people talking about making smarter choices at the grocery store. I'm not in love with the idea of nutrition facts on menus at non-chain restaurants, but mark my words...that's coming too! Sorry Mom & Pop. By Chef Laura on 2014 03 06
Wouldn't your DST "friend" be better off adding 1 hour for 5 months instead of subtracting one for 7? I'll grant, to paraphrase Addison DeWitt, that it's an "idiotic point, but a point nevertheless." Fun article. By PF on 2014 03 06
I'm always so proud of myself when I return the half eaten pint of B&J to the freezer.... By Ta Tee on 2014 03 06
I'm happy about the updated Nutrition Facts. I find fault with the current "serving size" of Soda Pop, Juices, Gatorades, and Ice Teas. In particular, the company that shares it's name with the state that does not participate in DST. The pop-top, not re-closeable cans of iced tea are a whopping 23 fluid ounces, but the serving size is only 8 oz. Most of these cans are purchased at convenience stores while traveling. Who is going to A) share a can or B) figure out how to secure the open top for later consumption? Nope, nearly 3 times the serving size will be gulped down at once. My boys were the ones to point this out to me, so I'm glad that they can read labels even if their mom is scarfing a King Size Snickers all by herself. There's hope for America's youth consumers. By Aunt B on 2014 03 06
Most solutions to the problems we face in life are complicated and require many "mini" solutions. The frequent and flippant response to any solution is that since it won't solve all of the problem it should not be done. This is a cop out. While changing the labels will not solve everything, it is a strong step and should be done. By ugh on 2014 03 06
Laura, You hit the nail on the head my friend. Again. Your example of your friend who forces a "make do" behavior to work around something she doesn't care to deal with is a perfect analogy for what we have at work here in this country. It's a combination of personal will power and restraint, combined with awareness and wariness of big CPGs. By george eddings on 2014 03 06
Due to leap year my calendar is 1 day behind, so I simply add one day in my head to all of my meetings, due dates, and social events. This may explain my poor credit rating and lack of social life. By Alternative Solutions on 2014 03 06
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