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FDA Weighs In On Expanding Nutrition Labels To List The Total Calories

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The food label on grocery store products needs an overhaul so it will be more useful to consumers struggling to control their weight, several nutrition experts say.

For instance, a 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew might have a line on the nutrition facts panel that tells dieters it contains 275 calories. Currently it says 110 calories for an 8-ounce serving.

This is one of the controversial ideas being discussed today in Bethesda, Md., at a meeting sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration. Top weight-loss researchers, industry experts and government officials will present their ideas for revamping the label, which has been a requirement for processed foods since 1994.

The FDA will take the information from today's meeting and submit a report early next year to agency commissioner Mark McClellan.

''We will be looking for ways to revise the food label to make it a more potent public health tool,'' says Peter Pitts, FDA's associate commissioner for external relations and the moderator of the meeting.

One concept being discussed: the possibility that some products should list total calories as well as calories per serving.

''For instance, it works for a 3-ounce or a 5-ounce bag of chips where somebody might eat the whole thing,'' says Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., consumer group. ''For a jar of peanut butter, it doesn't make sense. There will have to be some judgments on when it will be appropriate.''

Says Rudy Nayga, professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University who has studied the food label, ''It's a good idea. It saves people from calculating. It will help, but packages have limited space, and it could get all cluttered if you keep requiring more information.''

But not everyone is sure this change would prompt people to eat less. Some research shows that once people choose what food they are going to eat, they pay very little attention to how much they are consuming, says Brian Wansink, a professor of nutritional science and marketing at University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.

In one study, Wansink found total calories listed on labels did not reduce how much people ate. But people did reduce their intake if the label said they'd have to walk two miles to burn off calories contained in the package or that they'd gain one-sixteenth of a pound if they ate it all.

Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing brand-name foods, says the group is doing a survey to see if listing total calories would help consumers.

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