Joslin Dietitians Comment on Proposed New Food Label

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This editorial is by the Nutrition Staff at Joslin Diabetes Center. Click here to learn more about Nutrition Programs at Joslin.

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.

8 Responses to Joslin Dietitians Comment on Proposed New Food Label

  1. Ruth says:

    I cook for a young child w/Type 1. I prefer the smaller serving
    size on the Nutrition Labels. He doesn’t eat a whole
    serving which means doing the math to figure carbs for the
    smaller portion. The rest of the family generally
    follow those serving sizes and I did think those sizes
    were a recommended portion.
    I am thankful for these labels.
    I have problems with the dry measures such
    as rice when the label doesn’t tell you what it
    measures when it is prepared.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. Frances M Burton says:

    Have to agree with your 3rd paragraph. I know that when you buy a 20 oz bottle of coke most likely you’ll be drinking the whole thing. But I totally disagree with this change. The serving sizes should stay as 8 oz od soda (I’m just happen to use this example) and 1/2 cup ice cream. HAve to agree that 1/8 slice of pizza or apple pie is a little bit ludicrous.
    It’s going to be very interesting. Why can we spend more of our effort in educating people about portion sizes, portion distortion, disease prevention.
    I do like the information about K and added sugars….
    Was the first lady advised by people who educate the consumer, professionals with experience? What are we doing or how can we (Nutrition educators) tell her about our concerns.

    • Nora Saul, Nutrition Manager says:

      Dear FB:
      There were a spectrum of nutrition professionals on the panel revising the nutrition facts label, some of these individuals work with the public. Mrs. Obama does receive letters from the public. The more of us that write and express our views the more seriously we will be taken. The
      following format is suggested if you would like to correspond to the White House.

      -If you write a letter, please consider typing it on an 8 1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper. If you hand-write your letter, please consider using pen and writing as neatly as possible.

      -Please include your return address on your letter as well as your envelope. If you have an email address, please consider including that as well.

      -And finally, be sure to include the full address of the White House to make sure your message gets to us as quickly and directly as possible:

      Michelle Obama
      The White House
      1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
      Washington, DC 20500

  3. Don Fowles says:

    I can definitely see the benefit in changing food labels – the proposed design is very clear and concise, whereas the old one often required you to squint to see the information properly. I do agree with FB, however, about putting more time and effort into educating people about portion sizes and all of that – this is something that should be done in schools and would help people to better understand the information on the label. I also think that some of the serving sizes do need to be revised – we all know that they are often much bigger or smaller than what is listed on the packet.

  4. Jason says:

    Having the nutritional information on food has always been one of the greatest ideas, in the UK we also have a colour circle indicating cals, fat, sat fats, salt and sugar in different colours; green, orange and red (green being good) so you know just by looking at the packaging whether or not it’s healthy. But it is an interesting concept about portion sizes that you have mentioned. Perhaps the labelling should highlight the amount of cals etc in the whole pack in large print as well as for an individual so people don’t get confused.

  5. Catherine says:

    Do we really need the % of nutrtion based on a 2000 cal diet? Putting it on the left instead of the right will make more people think that it super important. I have many diabetes patients who think that they should be doing the math on their % of nutrients. Can you tell me why the % is there in the first place?

  6. Ellyn Baltz says:

    As a diabetes educator, and an interested consumer, as well, I am not happy with the proposed changes (e.g. enlarging Calories). The portion size should be very legible and understandable, and the font used for the Calories would remind folks that very little of the product will supply the rest of the information. Increasing the portion size is caving in to the obesity problem, in my opinion. Also, “sugars” should be eliminated, as they often confuse people with diabetes who believe “sugar-free” is A.O.K. (until they get to me!) Total carbohydrate could be listed as, for example, 16 grams (or 1 Carb choice). The label is very dense, and I applaud any effort toward revision!

  7. There are programs to help people lose weight sensibly. Joslin’s Fit and Healthy Program, for example, is a 14-week program that offers people with diabetes the opportunity to learn new patterns of eating and activity that will enable them to take weight off and keep it off.

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