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To understand the evolving American diet, read the label: A brief history of nutrition facts

To understand the evolving American diet, read the label: A brief history of nutrition facts


The Food and Drug Administration will likely propose adding nutrition labeling to the front of packaged foods for the first time. The change, anticipated to be announced in the coming months, will be the latest development in the consumer-driven evolution of nutrition labeling. It comes as cardiovascular disease, a diet-related illness, remains the leading cause of death in the U.S.; a new study published in the journal Neurology links ultra-processed foods to negative brain health outcomes.

Many other countries already include versions of this type of labeling on their food packaging. In Singapore, for instance, beverages feature a nutritional value letter grade, while across Europe, a similar Nutri-Score grade is included on most processed food packaging. The A through F grades are meant to alert consumers to the food’s overall nutritional value.

Nutrition labeling is a relatively recent phenomenon in the U.S., only existing in its current iconic black-and-white panel format for less than three decades. The addition of front-of-label nutrition facts would mark the first substantial change to food labeling in that time.

However, it is hardly the first time state and federal governments have attempted to influence consumer behavior toward more healthy foods. In 2010, Congress passed a law requiring chain restaurants to display nutrition facts on their menus, though the results of this change in dietary choices have been inconclusive. Some localities have imposed disincentivizing pricing structures on less healthy foods, like soda taxes on drinks sweetened with sugar, though no state currently levies these taxes.

FoodReady dug into reports from the National Institute of Health and other historical resources to explore the history of nutrition labeling through the years.

From market-fresh ingredients to pre-packaged convenience, the American diet undergoes drastic changes

In the early 20th century, foods included virtually no nutrition labeling. With far fewer processed and packaged foods available, labels weren’t necessary. People usually purchased raw ingredients fresh from markets and cooked them the same day.

The only food regulations at the time came about in the mid-1800s with the creation of the Department of Agriculture. They were mainly limited to rules about food handling and processing in the wake of many foodborne illness outbreaks. Though canned food was available in the U.S. starting in the late 19th century, it primarily supplemented raw ingredients and was not labeled with nutrition facts.

Post-World War II, the evolution of electrical kitchen appliances, including refrigerators and freezers, and the rise of large, all-inclusive supermarkets, introduced more women and families to frozen, pre-packaged, and canned foods and complete meals.

By the ’60s, as more women entered the workplace, the need for efficient, convenient family meals boosted demand for prepared foods. As more and more packaged and processed foods entered the market, consumers began to desire more transparency about what they were buying and eating. In 1966, the USDA required companies to include ingredient lists on all products involved in interstate commerce — the first time ingredient lists were mandated on packaging.

Misleading claims and a rising interest in nutrition trigger a consumer call for transparency

Though ingredient lists gave consumers an accurate account of what foods on grocery store shelves contained, companies were also adding false or misleading health claims to packaging.

Many claims purporting foods to be heart-healthy or low-fat were not backed by sufficient research or were simply untrue. To combat these misleading or harmful declarations, the FDA instituted a new rule that companies making health claims on their packaging or adding additional nutrients had to include the product’s nutrition information as well.

The rise of these claims coincided with an increased interest in diet and nutrition, which gained momentum in the ’70s with the hippie-driven health food craze and continued to grow throughout the ’80s. Increasingly, consumers called for more nutrition information.

Part of this newfound interest in the link between food and health came from the publication of the first-ever “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” in 1980, which included tips like “Eat a variety of foods” and “Maintain ideal weight.” Later in the decade, more detailed reports and guidance on nutrition from the surgeon general and the National Research Council were published, increasing mainstream awareness of and curiosity about food and diet. The reports linked specific components of food, like trans and saturated fats, to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.

With a focus on data and dietary awareness, labels become more nuanced

In 1990, Congress gave the FDA the authority to require consistent food labeling on packaged foods under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. The new law also required that these labels be in the context of a daily diet, with serving sizes that reflected typical portion sizes. The label had to include the calorie count, as well as the amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, protein, and specific vitamins and minerals.

Over the next several years, the FDA made new rules and determinations in light of emerging data and studies on various nutritional questions. Total trans fats were added on a separate line in labels after it came to light that they affect low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, often called “bad” cholesterol. Listing total sugars, rather than a separate line for added sugars, was decided upon since the body does not distinguish between naturally occurring sugars in fruits and sugars added after the fact.

Currently, nutrition labels include many of these same features, though serving size has been bolded, and there is now a separate line for added sugars, among other small changes. As an educational tool for consumers and a guideline for the food industry, nutrition labels have proven somewhat effective: A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that labeling does direct consumers to reduce their intake of certain ingredients and contents, including trans fats and high levels of sodium.

How much will the FDA’s potential new front-of-package labeling impact American food consumer habits? That remains to be seen.

Written by Eliza Siegel. Story editing by Alizah Salario. Additional editing by Kelly Glass. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.

This story originally appeared on FoodReady and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio. The article was copy edited from its original version.



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