FDA fiddles with Nutrition Facts Label while ignoring burning food issues

Posted by
January 30, 2014



It’s happening again: they’re fiddling while Rome burns.

In this case, the ones doing the fiddling are the folks in charge of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — and what they’re fiddling with (in fact, have been fiddling with for the past decade, as it turns out) is the “Nutrition Facts Label” (NFL) — the “information” label that the agency requires on all processed food packaging.

And what’s burning in the meantime? That would be the entire country, whose consumers the FDA is responsible for protecting from adulterated food, but whose collective health is being gradually, well, consumed by a nearly uncontrolled firestorm of harmful and toxic ingredients.

You’re no doubt familiar with the NFL, which provides information like the number of calories and the amounts of sodium, potassium, protein, carbs, various fats, fiber and “sugars” (not to be confused with “sugar”) in a typical serving of whatever is in the package, along with vitamins A and C and the minerals calcium and iron – all derived from corporate databases.

Well, according to an Associated Press story published last week, the NFL is now up for review, with an eye to making it easier for consumers to read and understand, and more reflective of the knowledge about nutrition that has evolved over the two decades since the nutrition panel was first introduced on packaging.

“It’s important to keep this updated so what is iconic doesn’t become a relic,” is how Michael Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods (or “food czar,” as he’s often referred to), explained the rationale for this reevaluation, noting how both the “food environment” and “our dietary guidance” have changed in that time.

Indeed they have, but it’s sometimes hard to escape the impression that when it comes to changes of this sort, the FDA is way behind the curve.

Take the issue of trans fats, for example. For years, this artery-clogging additive, whose main purpose is to extend the shelf life of products, has been acknowledged by health experts to be a major cause of heart attacks. It wasn’t until late last year, however, that the FDA finally got around to proposing that partially hydrogenated oil, the primary source of added trans fats in our diet, be phased out.

But while trans fat was given its own NFL designation back in 2006, manufacturers are still being allowed to get away with listing a product as having “zero grams” of trans fat as a “nutrition fact” as long as it actually has less than 0.5 grams. Now, changing that to reflect the true amount of this killer additive (which is estimated to kill about 7,000 Americans a year) might actually be helpful to consumers – but until the new guidelines, which have been sent to the White House for review, are released by the FDA, we won’t know whether any such thing is on the agenda.

Grams, calories and portions on ‘critics’ choice’ list

And while the article mentions trans fat, eliminating this dangerously deceptive trans fat “loophole”  wasn’t among the revisions cited as being suggested by nutritionists and health experts or being considered by the FDA. Instead, what most seemed to concern Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is the  “roughly two dozen numbers of substances that people aren’t intuitively familiar with,” such as the panel’s use of grams to measure amounts, which he would like to see changed to teaspoons.

Then there’s the proposal (actually an “expected change”) that the number of calories be made more prominent, put forth by Regina Hildwine of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the country’s leading manufacturers of processed foods (and leading users of various undesirable additives). Still other suggestions involve better defining “portion” sizes, adding actual amounts of whole wheat and listing “sugars and syrups” separately that don’t occur naturally in foods, but are added during processing.

What, exactly, are “sugars?”

That last recommendation is another example of how the NFL has been – and continues to be — a source of confusion about a very important topic: in this case, the difference between “sugar” and “sugars.” While it may sound like splitting hairs, “sugar” is a specific substance, a granular one otherwise known as sucrose, which is made up of equal parts glucose and fructose, whereas “sugars” covers a lot of territory.  Some are natural and others – such as high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS – distinctly not. And there is a world of difference between them, insofar as how they affect human health and metabolism.

But as long as the FDA is up for suggestions, we’d like to weigh in with one of our own: how about adding an “Ingredient Facts Panel” that would not only list the names of various ingredients and additives, as labels currently do, but the amount of each a product contains (especially fructose, which HFCS often contains in higher amounts than acknowledged) and some of the “side effects” that studies at reputable universities and institutions have found they can produce.

Something like that might go far in helping curtail the epidemic levels that health problems like obesity and diabetes have reached in recent years – not to mention various types of cancer and the mushrooming of conditions such as autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children (which experts have linked to various food additives). Especially given that, according to  a U. S. Department of Agriculture study, a greater percentage of adults reported consulting the nutrition facts panel and “other claims” on food packages “always or most of the time” in 2009 and 2010 compared with two years earlier.

All of which isn’t to say that there isn’t room for improvement in the so-called “nutrition facts” now provided, which Washington-based nutrition consultant Tracy Fox calls “messy.”  But it shouldn’t take 10 years to bring it about, while far more serious food issues remain not only unresolved, but apparently not even considered by the FDA.

For while the emperor Nero may have gotten a bad rap for “fiddling” while 70 percent of ancient Rome was consumed in a fire (he actually played a type of harp, and is said to have gone to extraordinary lengths to cope with the catastrophe), the FDA has indeed been fiddling for far too long in contemplating changes for a superficial label while allowing any number of harmful ingredients to destroy the health of countless individuals.