FDA’s proposed ‘new’ Nutrition Facts Label: a reality check

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March 11, 2014


“Soon it will be much easier to tell whether a packaged food or beverage is actually healthy.” —  Men’s Journal. “Michelle Obama Wins Big Against Powerful Corporate Interests.”  — Christina Wilkie, Huffington Post. “It’s a victory.” — Mark Bittman, The New York Times.

new_nflFinally last week, after a decade of work, the Food and Drug Administration announced proposed changes to its 20-year-old “Nutrition Facts Label.”   Michelle Obama hosted the press conference announcing the new label and received kudos from swooning media.

But, will the new label actually make as much of a difference in our becoming a nation of healthier eaters as the First Lady indicated?

Let’s do a reality check:

In a blog at the end of January, “FDA fiddles with Nutrition Facts Label while ignoring burning food issues,” we highlighted some of the current label’s failings. And while we’re glad to see the FDA acknowledging that it needs improving, the proposed changes — despite their elaborate release and flattering press — would leave consumers poorly informed in several crucial areas.

For starters, it often misrepresents the amount of artery-clogging trans fat in a product. The new label does not correct the current loophole that allows up to 0.5 grams of trans fat to be represented as “zero” grams. The FDA should immediately eliminate this “loophole” for a substance it has acknowledged kills over 7,000 people a year.  Even though the agency has now proposed a phase-out of trans fat, failure to correct this discrepancy means that people who now believe they are avoiding this additive may well, in fact, be unknowingly consuming not insignificant amounts. The label could easily aid such consumers by either specifying that a product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats or rounding the amount up to 0.5, rather than down to zero.

But, we’re told, the emphasis of the new label will no longer be on “fats.” “To help address obesity, one of the most important public health problems facing our country, the proposed label would drive attention to calories and serving sizes” instead of fats, says Michael Taylor FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods.

To this end, “total calories” would be prominently displayed at the top in large, bold numerals. Portion sizes would also be increased to give a more realistic idea of the amounts people eat. And the new phrase “added sugars” would be placed on the display.

The sugar fallacy – and the risk of being too calorie conscious

This strategy can also mislead consumers. Total calories can be lowered even while portion sizes are increased by simply adding extra amounts of fructose (as has been noted by at least one major manufacturer of high fructose corn syrup).  This use of fructose underscores the nature of the ‘sugar fallacy’ the new label promotes, which is only made worse by adding the phrase “addedsodacan2 sugars.”

The per capita consumption of sugar is the same today as it was in 1909.  By contrast, the per capita consumption of fructose is far higher today than it was in 1980, the year its presence in processed foods began to increase in the form of high fructose corn syrup, leading to its becoming the caloric sweetener most often added to food.

Unless they read ingredients, consumers of low-calorie food products listing “added sugars” could miss the addition of high fructose corn syrup. This difficulty could be overcome by listing “sweeteners” and “added sweeteners” by name on the Nutrition Facts Label. Or, “natural sugar” could be differentiated from “added sweeteners” on the nutrition label.

It is important for consumers to know if and when they consume which sweetener — including sucrose and fructose.  The label should avoided disguising this information by lumping all sweeteners under the generic heading “sugars” and “added sugars.”

The proposed label would also prominently display a food product’s number of calories. But where do those calories come from? The proposed Nutrition Facts Label doesn’t say.  If the source is unbound fructose (from high fructose corn syrup, for example), it can make a big difference to people trying to stay healthy, lose weight, or avoid becoming overweight.

Also, if fostering a new sense of “calorie consciousness” is the purpose of all this, it poses a new risk to consumers: the greater likelihood that they’ll opt for “lite” products containing either caloric sweeteners with higher amounts of fructose or non-caloric artificial sweeteners like aspartame, which is neurotoxic and can pose a genuine health hazard (especially to children and the elderly).

What the real goal of food labeling should be

“Our guiding principle here,” noted Mrs. Obama, “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.”  Bravo! — that is exactly what we’re all hoping  better food labeling will achieve.

But, while she is absolutely right about the guiding principle involved, the proposed “new” Nutrition Facts Label, in its current form, falls short in helping shoppers understand whether something is really “good for” their families.

Continuing to misstate up to 0.5 milligrams of trans-fats as 0 milligrams is just one glaring example. Now, the FDA might argue that by the time these label changes are implemented – most likely in a few years – all added trans fat (in the form of partially hydrogenated oil) will probably have been phased out of food, as it proposed back in November. Perhaps, perhaps not. But in the meantime, consumers will go on eating dangerous quantities of this substance in multiple products in the mistaken belief that their diet is trans-fat free.

Saying “sugars” and “added sugars” also fools the consumer.  Using terms like “sweeteners” and “added sweeteners” would provide far more useful information about the specific additives being used to sweeten food products. Displaying this kind of information on food labels would help individuals know whether a product is what they intended to buy by giving them an idea of what kind of additives it contains, its nutritional profile and how much of it is advisable to eat.

Tomatoe with nutriton factsBut in its proposed form, there is much less to the new Nutrition Facts Label then there easily could be. Some of the changes, in fact, are purely cosmetic – like moving the “daily values” in each product of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbs and protein, as well as the newly specified nutrients potassium and vitamin D, from a right-hand column to one on the left (which sounds a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic).

None of these comments are meant to criticize the First Lady or to question the sincerity of her campaign to improve the health of American families. We consider some of the things she’s done as having been definite steps in the right direction, from the White House organic garden to the “Let’s Move” program she’s pursued to combat childhood obesity. In fact, there’s no one we can think of who’s been a bigger advocate for healthy living.

But in the case of the new Nutrition Facts Label, her advocacy represents, at best, a nod in the right direction. Now we need to urge her to fight for full disclosure of things like actual trans fat levels, the amounts of fructose in HFCS, and which sweeteners are added to products.

In the meantime, to get more of an actual understanding of what’s in the processed food you eat, and how healthy or harmful it really is, you should, in fact, be reading the label – the ingredients label, that is, which you’ll usually find in a much less prominent place on a food package or can than the Nutrition  Facts Label.

That’s why we’ve designated April 11 (4-11) as National “Read Your Labels Day,” which is intended to encourage food shoppers to become more aware of the actual ingredients in the processed products they buy, and to make choices based on that knowledge.

We would also encourage readers of this blog to use the 90-day public comment period now in effect to in make their opinions known to the FDA about those proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts Label – and to propose changes of their own.