By: Austin Perlmutter, MD, Medical Student, Miller School of Medicine
After 20 years, the FDA has plans for a major overhaul of the Nutrition Facts label. This is a big deal, as the sticker is required on the majority of American packaged foods. In reality, the Nutrition Facts label represents one of the best sources of information on our groceries. The FDA claims its changes reflect a “greater understanding of nutrition science,” and will lead to a label that will “[address] current public health concerns.” These are important changes, and here’s what’s actually happening.
- More accurate serving sizes
In response to our supersized portions, the FDA seeks to more adequately describe what we eat, emphasizing “more realistic” serving sizes. They specifically target the impact of packaging, understanding that both a 12 or 20 ounce soda bottle will likely be consumed in one sitting, and should therefore both be treated as a single serving.
If nothing else, this change will allow us to be more honest with ourselves. Instead of subdividing our indulgences into unreasonably small portions, we can have a firmer grasp on what we’re actually eating in a single sitting. On the other hand, it may allow people to feel better about eating something like a pint of ice cream all at once.
- Calories front and center
By magnifying the calorie count of the enclosed food, the FDA believes they are “[emphasizing] parts of the label that are important in addressing current public health concerns such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”
Certainly, chronic disease conditions like the aforementioned are strongly associated with dietary choices. However, broadcasting calorie count promotes snap judgment as to the overall health value of a given food. For example, almonds are a high calorie food, but can still be a healthful addition to diet. Conversely, low calorie snack packs contain a smaller quantity of an unhealthful food, though the package may still be low in calories overall. This change brings up the quality versus quantity argument as it relates to calories, and may not give consumers adequate information to properly use the printed values.
- No more “calories from fat”
As scientific research continues to demonstrate, the consumption of fat is not a health problem in itself. According to the FDA, “the total fat in the diet is less important than the type of fat.” In addition, the FDA’s research found that getting rid of the “calories from fat” label does not affect people’s ability to judge the healthfulness of a product. Still, the new label will retain the saturated fat, trans-fat and total fat sections.
The first thing to note here is that by the FDA’s own admission, the “calories from fat” labeling is pointless. It seems reasonable to retain the total fat content, and we should be told if a product contains toxic trans-fats. However, research on saturated fat has shown that it may not be the villain previously thought. Requiring a saturated fat component may not be a problem, but unless the label shows other healthy fats alongside, many will get the wrong idea.
- Sugar explained
As of now, the Nutrition Facts label includes “sugars” as a single number. The new version seeks to clarify total sugar content by breaking down the amount of added sugar. The FDA feels “added sugars provide no additional nutrient value,” and are “empty calories.” Therefore, the “added sugar” will inform the consumer as to the amount of unnecessary extra sweetener.
The added sugar labeling may be the most important component of the label revisions. For the first time, the consumer will be made aware of how much extra sugar is pumped into the foods and liquids we purchase. As the FDA understands, the added sugar has no health value whatsoever, and is a huge source of unhealthy calories. If we could properly use this part of the label as a general level of unhealthiness of the product, the health ramifications could be huge, as added sugar is directly involved in the pathogenesis of obesity and chronic disease.
- Other changes
The updated label will also include a variety of other modifications, including a different set of required vitamins and minerals. These changes are based on “nutrients Americans don’t eat enough of.” Due to current research, and common deficiencies, inclusion of vitamin D and potassium levels will be necessary, and vitamin A and C no longer obligatory. In addition, the FDA is considering lowering the daily sodium value to 1.5 grams from the current 2.3 grams, on the basis of high typical sodium consumption and the resultant implications for blood pressure
Including vitamin D and potassium makes sense from a scientific perspective. With the growing body of research on common deficiencies, increasing awareness of our intake of these key nutrients is a good plan. Especially important is the emphasis on vitamin D, as our data showing a deficiency leads to risk for a wide range of health problems. As far as sodium, it’s hard to say how much of an impact changing the daily value would make. Americans are already doing a poor job with salt, consuming around 3.5 grams of sodium a day relative to the recommended 2.3. While it’s reasonable to shoot for a lower value, it’s not going to matter much if nobody follows the guidelines anyway.
What you need to know: The new rendition of the Nutrition Facts label will likely hit shelves within the next few years. This label is an essential read for the health-conscious consumer. Key things to look at include:
- Total calories: Be aware of this number mostly if it is very high or very low. Calories are necessary and the source of the calories is much more important than the quantity.
- Fat content: Worry less about the total fat and more about the source of the fat. Saturated fat isn’t the end of the world, but trans-fats are not good in any amount. Consider the level of processing involved in the product, as fats that prolong shelf life are good to avoid.
- Added sugar: The most important part of the new label. The more added sugar, the less healthful the product. Shoot for foods with little to no added sugar to maximize a food’s health benefits.