The ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label that adorns all packaged foods in the United States maybe getting a face lift if the proposed changes recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on February 26 go through. The aim of the makeover is to both align the label’s contents with current scientific understanding of how nutrition affects chronic disease and make to it easier for the public to quickly make healthier choices.
“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”
One of the major proposed changes is that serving sizes will be more realistic. Legally, the serving size listed on the package should reflect what people actually eat; not what they should eat. Portions for many foods have doubled in size since the initial required food labels were designed in 1990. For example, twenty years ago a bagel was 3 inches in diameter and provided 140 calories; now a bagel serving is 6 inches and 350 calories. Other examples of food portions no longer reflecting the reality of what people are eating include 8 ounce servings of soda or ½ cup servings of ice-cream. To more accurately give consumers an idea of the calories and nutrients they are consuming, the labels for soda and ice cream would now list a serving as 20 ounces of soda and 1 cup of ice cream. Based on recent food consumption surveys, the FDA estimates that 27 of the 158 food categories that are used to calculate serving sizes should be changed causing manufacturers to make revisions to a significant number of labels.
“People with diabetes use the food label on a regular basis to determine the carbohydrate and saturated fat content of the food they are eating. Having portions reflect current eating habits may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it more accurately mirrors reality, on the other it gives people a false impression of what they should be eating, For example ,although 1 cup of ice cream may be the new serving size, it may be excessive as a snack for someone with diabetes who is trying to watch his or her weight ” says Nora Saul, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., Nutrition Manager at Joslin Diabetes Center.
Other significant changes include the addition of added sugars under the total carbohydrate umbrella and the addition of vitamin D and potassium to the food label. Currently the label indicates the amount of total sugars in a product, but does not inform consumers how much is naturally occurring and how much is added by the manufacturer. Americans consume approximately 16 percent of their calories from added sugars. Most major health organization including as the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization recommend decreasing intake of added sugars. Added sugars are linked to dental cavities as well as being associated with the obesity epidemic.
A noticeable change will make the calorie designation more prominently displayed in bolder print. In addition the calories from fat will be removed as more recent scientific information indicates that the source of the fat consumed rather than the quantity is more important for avoiding chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
The format of the label is also being revised with the percent daily values appearing on the left side of the label instead of the right.
There will be a 60 day period for the public to provide their comments and once the law is enacted, manufacturers will have two years to bring their package labels into compliance.
Research has shown that more consumers than ever before are reading the Nutrition Facts panel. For example, the percentage of respondents reporting that they “often” read a food label the first time they purchase a food product rose from 44 percent in 2002 to 54 percent in 2008, and, among these consumers, two-thirds reported using the label to see how high or low the food was in components such as calories, sodium, vitamins or fat. More than half said they used labels to get a general idea of the nutritional content of the product.
The new label doesn’t take into account every change dietitians and other health care professionals want. For example, Joslin staff dietitian Ann Feldman, M.S., R.D., C.D.E. would have liked a warning about high fructose corn syrup to appear on the label.
But all in all the changes are a step in the right direction to helping the public make healthful food choices for themselves and their family.