Honest Nutrition Labels: Can They Exist?

Last week, the FDA and First Lady, Michelle Obama, proposed several changes to the Nutrition Facts label. It will likely take several years before these changes are put into place, but it is a great place to start.

New-Nutrition-Label-Infographic-Main

Here are some highlights:

1. Calories will be listed more prominently and in a larger font size, making them easier to find.
2. Serving sizes will be adjusted to more accurately depict what is eaten in one sitting. For instance, a 20 oz. soda will be considered 1 serving, as opposed to 2.5, which has been the case in the past.
3. Calories from fat will no longer be listed, allowing us to focus more on types of fat to be avoided (trans fat) rather than fat as a whole.  Science has shown that dietary fat is not the demon it was once made out to be.
4. Added sugars will now be listed. This is a great addition; one that health advocates have been wanting for a long time, and the food industry will likely try to refute. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we consume less added sugars, but the current food label doesn’t indicate the number of sugars added to foods, only the total grams. This makes determining how much refined sugar the food industry is adding into products very challenging for consumers, especially for foods that contain natural sugars like fruit and dairy products.
5. Vitamin D and Potassium information will now be listed, and listing Vitamin A and C will be voluntary . Vitamin D and Potassium have higher deficiency rates for Americans, making this an important addition.
6. Recommended Daily Values for sodium will go down from 2400 milligrams to 2300, and will go up for fiber from 25 grams to 30. These numbers are being adjusted to better represent what we have learned in the past 20 years about how much we should consume of each of these nutrients.

While these changes are important, and will hopefully help consumers to make healthier food choices, there are many more improvements that could still be made. In fact, the FDA proposed an alternate label that has received much less press.

Nutrition-Labels_Gray_t670

In addition to the other changes mentioned, this alternate label also provides information about which nutrients to avoid (trans fat, sodium, added sugars) and which to get more of (vitamin D, fiber, calcium). This label comes much closer to labels advocates have been proposing, such as this label designed by Center for Science in the Public Interest:

Nutrition-Facts-Suggested

A Nutrition Facts label, such as this, is clearly designed to help consumers make healthier decisions. Of course, the food industry is not in favor of these labels as they might paint a negative picture of their products. Proof of this, is the $50 million they are spending to promote their own voluntary package label, called Facts Up Front.

GMAFMI

The industry calls Facts Up Front “a tool” to help consumers, but as is no surprise, it really just continues to serve the industry’s best interest by allowing companies to highlight positive attributes of a product, without having to warn them about anything negative. Plus, it is confusing. Is 14 grams of sugar a lot or a little? The fiber is high, but so is the saturated fat. Is it healthy or not? This type of labeling also encourages fortification (adding positive nutrients like vitamins and fiber) to make unhealthy products seem more healthy.

Evidence of the confusion over Facts Up Front is further proven in this video from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University:


Despite what the food industry will tell you, consumers clearly aren’t learning much about nutrition from “Facts Up Front.” On the contrary, it will likely continue to cause consumers to choose highly processed, cheaply made junk food that appears healthy — just what the industry wants.

These industry efforts are quite contradictory to their consistent claims that eating well is all about “personal responsibility.” How can consumers eat responsibly if they aren’t receiving clear and honest information?

What do you think? Would any of these labels help you to make healthier choices?

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2 thoughts on “Honest Nutrition Labels: Can They Exist?

  1. Hi Bridgette,

    For me, some of the biggest hurdles in honest nutrition labelling is making serving size more realistic and also lowering the daily recommended value. But I am stunned by how few people know that foods marketed as “low sodium” so seldom actually are. Not even close.

    I think improving nutrition literacy is even much more important, at a grassroots level, as industry and corporate ends have played such a big role in nutrition initiatives and led to health washing.

    It seems to me that doctors, registered dieticians and parents have made the biggest and best noise about health washing and I think a revolution is already beginning. I think changing label requirements are evidence that public pressure is working. We must keep at it and also demand healthier products (and limit processed foods as much as we can).

    Great blog! I will return.

    Ashley

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