Late in the fall, in the midst of budget uproar and threats of war, Congress passed and President George Bush signed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1989.
Despite the lack of fanfare, the new law can eventually have a tremendous impact on American health, because it will force manufacturers to provide the information we need to make healthful food choices.
Consumers will be big winners when the new requirements for the nutrient label become effective.
*Old requirements will still be used, including "serving size" in standard, common household measures, "number of servings per container" and "total calories."
*"Percent RDA" of vitamins A and C; the B vitamins niacin, thiamine and riboflavin; and minerals calcium and iron will disappear, because of space limitations and the fact that few Americans suffer from vitamin deficiencies.
*New requirements that reflect current food-related health concerns will include "total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol," "sodium," "total carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates and sugar," "total protein" and "dietary fiber."
Debate once raged over whether to use percentage of calories from fat, protein and carbohydrate in grams. It's impossible to calculate the amount of fat you've eaten in a day by adding up percentages.
Fortunately, we'll get grams, which are easy to add up for an accurate picture.
Women who are maintaining normal weight average about 2,000 calories a day and should have about 43 grams of protein and no more than 66 grams of fat, with the remainder of food choices coming from carbohydrates. Most of the carbohydrates should be complex (about 250 grams), with simple carbohydrates (sugars) limited to about 50 grams.
Men of normal weight average about 3,000 calories a day and should have about 56 grams of protein and no more than 100 grams of fat, with the remainder of choices coming from carbohydrates. Men too should get most of their carbohydrates from the complex sources (425 grams) and limit simple sugars to 75 grams.
This new law will benefit consumers in several other ways:
*The Food and Drug Administration must review scientific information to decide whether health claims, such as "fiber prevents cancer," are valid and can appear on labels.
*True but misleading claims will be eliminated. For instance, the claim that solid vegetable shortening "contains no cholesterol" is true. But it contains large quantities of saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol levels in many people.
*The validity of health claims for vitamin and mineral supplements must be evaluated.
*Confusing terms such as "lite," "reduced" and "free" must have standard meanings when used on labels.
The bad news, of course, is that this will take a while. Proposed regulations will take one year. Final regulations won't be completed for another six months. Only then will manufacturers know enough about actual legal requirements to begin producing labels that meet consumer needs.
But it's a start!
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.