The FDA rolled out the “new and improved” version of the iconic Nutrition Facts label this month, exposing a dark underbelly of nutrition policy. Conveying nutrition information for the public at large is difficult, and the science isn’t settled– even when The USDA Dietary Guidelines tells us it is. So what can consumers learn from the new label?
- There is less concern about fat intake and risk of disease, so the label no longer details the number of Calories from fat. Total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat grams are still listed.
- The new label calls out added sources of refined sugar in a food in addition to total sugars.
- The label includes data for potassium which is helpful for some consumers on special diets (sodium data is already on the label)
- Serving sizes reflect real portions. For example a 20 ounce soda that is consumed in a single sitting will no longer be considered to contain more than one serving.
- The labels contain too much detail and most consumers pay little attention to much of the information. While it may be meaningful to note a specific food is a good source of calcium, I can’t imagine too many people calculating their diets based on food labels to make sure they are getting enough.
- Some labels will include a second column of data to let consumers know the damage when they end upeating the entire package, as if they couldn’t do the math by themselves.
- Fruit juice is not considered an added sugar, despite being mostly sugar. Will food manufacturers exploit the provision by reformulating products with juice or agave “nectar”?
- Specific nutrients, Vitamin A and C are no longer tracked on the food label. Vitamin D is now listed despite food being a rather poor source of Vitamin D. A waste of space– I don’t know anyone tracking nutrient intake based on the Nutrition Facts label. (Besides, ten minutes of sunshine at the right angle of the sun helps our body convert all the Vitamin D we need. Unfortunately, we don’t all live at the equator, so many of us need to supplement Vitamin D six months out of the year anyways. Food sources? Not good enough.)
- The Nutrition Facts label overemphasizes Calorie data. Researchers, clinicians, and public health advocates are still mired in the belief that weight management is basically a math problem. The wishful thinking leads to pretending that counting calories leads to improved metabolic health and weight loss.
I’ve belabored this issue before, so click here if you are looking for additional details. In reality, quality of our food intake more profoundly impacts hunger, satiety, and metabolic health than the number of calories we eat.
- FDA makes a baffling decision continue a preoccupation with cholesterol and naturally occurring saturated fat in food. This, despite the recent USDA position that cholesterol is “no longer a nutrient of concern”. While the FDA stays consistent with dietary guidelines to limit saturated fat intake, most current research indicates that naturally occurring saturated fats from meat and dairy products–especially from animals eating their natural diet– is not only not harmful, but in all likelihood enhances satiety and contributes to better metabolic health.
- Food labels continue to be based on a 2000 Calorie diet, despite the fact that most men, adolescents, and active women may need more than 2000 Calories a day, and others need less. Calorie counting will continue to be mired in controversy for three reasons. 1) Major flaws exist in how science determines the energy value of foods 2) the Nutrition Facts labels allow a 20% margin of error in either direction. 3) Noted scientists acknowledge that the calorie balance equation is dead. Energy metabolism is more biology, less math.
- Percentage of nutrient consumed refers to percent of amount recommended, not a percentage of nutrient in the food. I’ve already witnessed the confusion. People think 20% next to the 10 grams of added sugar in the sample label above means that the food is 20% sugar–NOT.The 20% refers to 20 % of “recommended” sugar intake. The dietary guidelines currently recommend limiting added sugar to no more than 10% of total calories. In a 2000 calorie diet that means 200 calories (2000 x .10). At four calories per gram, that equals 50 grams of added sugar a day: 10g/50g = 20%.I’m thinking it would have been simpler to say: Limit added sugar to less than 50 gm a day–and maybe not every day.
CONSUMERS DESERVE BETTER
The ever optimistic First Lady would like to believe it won’t require a nutrition degree to decipher the new label, but I’m not so sure. If food labeling could help Americans eat better we would have already measured the benefit.
Indeed, in a recent Politico piece the Economist who proclaimed 20 years ago that the food label would lead to better health outcomes realizes his mistake. Today Americans suffer more conditions linked to diet and poor metabolic health.
Maybe what is really needed is a wholesale change in the way both public health and medicine approach food, nutrition and metabolic health. We need disruption.
No more assuming there is one right way to eat. No more prescriptive diets for the public at large or even for a specific diagnosis. Personalized nutrition should be the norm.
Maybe the nutrition facts label should just inform and stop trying to direct food choices and shape everyone’s overall diet. Keep the ingredient list and identify the serving size and number of servings per container. Document the total grams of energy nutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat).
A colored pie chart might work ever better. It’s pretty clear this mythical food’s calories mostly come from carbohydrate with some fat. Very little protein.
Break out the grams of fiber, sugar and added sugar. Identify grams of trans fats. Specify the milligrams of sodium and potassium, and leave the rest alone. We’ll still need to teach consumers how to use the information, but at least I won’t have to explain detail that doesn’t apply to most of us. More critically, I won’t have to explain why we shouldn’t pay attention to government guidelines that tell us what to eat.