The Food and Drug Administration has introduced two consumer tools designed to help people understand nutrition facts panels so that they are able to better control their food choices.
The agency's new website and brochure are the government's latest attempt to address America's growing obesity epidemic, but the move has already been criticized as "feeble" and "disproportionate" to the magnitude of the epidemic.
However, according to the government's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), consumers can use the nutrition facts panel on food products as a way to control their caloric intake and weight, and to make healthier food choices. But this can only be successful if people understand how to use it.
And one way the FDA hopes to promote this understanding is through a web-based learning program, Make Your Calories Count.
The interactive program features an animated character called 'Labelman' who leads the viewer through a series of exercises on the food label. The program includes exercises to help consumers explore the relationship between serving sizes and calories, while they learn how to limit certain nutrients and get enough of others.
The FDA said that for simplicity, the program presents two nutrients that should be limited - saturated fat and sodium - and two nutrients that should be consumed in adequate amounts - fiber and calcium.
"This learning program provides a quick and simple way to educate consumers on how to use the nutrition facts label. By making it easier for consumers to understand (the label), the FDA is helping them make quick and informed food choices that contribute to lifelong healthy eating habits," said Dr Andrew von Eschenbach, Acting FDA Commissioner.
The program is part of FDA's response to the recommendations of its Obesity Working Group, in the group's 2004 report, Calories Count. The program was based on recommendations in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The FDA also introduced a new Nutrition Facts Label brochure, which describes how consumers can use labeling as they shop and plan meals. The brochure includes information designed to help consumers understand the relationship between calories and serving size, which may help them use the label to manage their intake of calories, said the agency.
The FDA said its new consumer tools are part of its commitment to reduce the number of overweight people in the US and to combat the growing levels of diseases associated with obesity.
"The risk of many diseases and health conditions may be reduced through preventive actions and a culture of wellness deters or diminishes debilitating and costly health events. Individual health care is built on a foundation of responsibility for personal wellness," said Dr John Agwunobi, HHS assistant secretary for health.
But according to consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the government is "just delusional if they think yet another website and brochure will make a dent in the obesity epidemic."
"What the Administration should be doing is actually orienting government policies around the Dietary Guidelines," it said, adding that the government should be getting rid of all things partially hydrogenated, requiring obesity warnings on soft drinks, and shielding kids from junk food advertising.