Food labels are getting a makeover—and it’s about time. Other than requiring manufacturers to start listing trans fats back in 2006, food labels have barely changed in two decades…yet our knowledge of nutrition and our eating habits have changed radically. For example, when today’s food labels first came on the scene, the common wisdom was that all fats, including olive oil, were bad for us…and that margarine was better than butter! Meanwhile, as anyone can see, Americans have gotten fatter—so if we can create food labels that help more of us eat better, that’s a good thing.
The new labels are a work in progress, and that’s another good thing. There’s still time for you to make your opinions known, thereby helping improve the labels’ final design and doing the whole country a good turn.
Here are the key points to know about the proposed new labels, plus what I like—and don’t like—about each point…
SERVING SIZES. Under the new labeling rules, serving sizes will get more realistic—and that’s a huge step in the right direction. Nothing annoys me quite like seeing a serving listed as, say, one-third of a muffin. Do manufacturers honestly think that anyone eats just one-third of a muffin? Of course not! But contrary to popular belief, manufacturers aren’t necessarily trying to fool inattentive consumers into thinking that their muffin has just 200 calories instead of 600 so that they’ll buy the thing. Rather, manufacturers are required to consider one serving of a muffin to be 55 grams (g), or about two ounces.
Why? Portion sizes for many foods are standardized according to the Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC), which is supposed to reflect the amount of a given food that people customarily do consume at one sitting—not some ideal serving size. Current RACCs were determined based on surveys of what people ate back in the 1970s and 1980s. But nowadays, people tend to eat more. So I can’t really blame manufacturers for “pretending” that people eat just 55 g of muffin at a sitting. Where I do fault manufacturers is in making those super-jumbo, six-ounce muffins, which of course look like single servings…instead of packaging three mini-muffins together, which consumers could more readily identify as three separate servings.
Good move #1: Under the new labeling system, about 17% of serving sizes will be updated because the RACCs have changed by more than 25%. For instance, the RACC for muffins will increase from 55 g to 110 g. And instead of saying that a pint of ice cream contains four half-cup servings at about 200 calories per serving, the new label will reflect the fact that people tend to take a full cup, so a pint of ice cream will be listed as two 400-calorie servings. For other products, the RACC will go down. For example, a typical single-serving yogurt container is smaller than it used to be, so the RACC for yogurt will drop from eight ounces to six ounces.
Good move #2—with a caveat. A second proposed change regarding serving size could be helpful—or it could be misinterpreted. It has to do with the fact that package size influences how much we eat. The rule will affect products that contain about twice the standard serving size. Consider soda, for example. The current RACC is eight ounces. But under the new rules, a 20-ounce bottle of soda will be labeled as a single serving because few people stop at eight ounces. My concern: Unwary (or willfully clueless) consumers may wrongly interpret the “single serving” status to mean that it is reasonable or even recommended to consume 20 ounces of soda at a time.
Good move #3—a real winner: A third change affects packages that are meant to contain two to four servings but that could conceivably be consumed by one individual at one sitting. These packages will need a dual-column format—one column listing the calories and nutritional information for a single serving and the other listing the numbers for the entire package. This will make it harder for consumers to ignore that fact that they are downing 600 calories when they eat the entire four-ounce bag of potato chips.
CALORIE COUNTS. On today’s labels, you have to hunt for the calorie count because that number is the same size as all the other numbers. Not so with the new labels!
Great update: The new calorie count is BIG and BOLD—nearly impossible to overlook, even if you’re not wearing your reading glasses. Another improvement is that, instead of saying “amount per serving” and then listing the calories, it will say “amount per 2/3 cup” (or whatever a serving size is)—reinforcing the fact that the big, bold calorie count corresponds to a specific amount of food.
DAILY VALUES. The purpose of expressing nutrient quantities as a percentage of the daily value (shown on labels as “% Daily Value”) is, the FDA says, to “help consumers understand the nutrition information in the context of a total daily diet.” The footnote on the current label reads, “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily value may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.”
What needs work: The footnote will be rewritten so that it’s simpler and more meaningful, the FDA says—which is good, because the current language is clear as mud. Since the wording has yet to be determined, I cannot comment on it. However, I do think that the whole concept of the daily value is problematic. When applied to beneficial nutrients that we need (vitamins, minerals, fiber), the daily value represents a minimum—i.e., “Try to get at least this much every day.” But when applied to things that people get too much of (such as sodium), the daily value represents a maximum—i.e., “Try not to exceed this amount every day.” Not every consumer is savvy enough to grasp that having a food provide 75% of the daily value of calcium is terrific, but having it provide 75% of the daily value of sodium is terrible.
What’s good: Daily value numbers will shift from the middle to the left side of the label so consumers can more easily see how much of a certain nutrient the food provides in the context of total daily diet. Another improvement is that some daily values will be updated based on recent research—for instance, calcium will probably increase from 1,000 milligrams (mg) to 1,300 mg…and sodium will probably decrease from 2,400 mg to 2,300 mg.
KEY NUTRIENTS. Currently, manufacturers must list products’ daily values for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron…and they are allowed to list other nutrients if they want to.
Helpful change: Under the new rules, labels must list daily values for vitamin D and potassium, too. These are considered “nutrients of public health significance”—vitamin D is essential for bone health and potassium helps control blood pressure—yet a sizable portion of Americans are deficient in these. Calcium and iron, also nutrients of public health significance, will continue to be required on food labels.
Listings for vitamins A and C will no longer be required, though manufacturers can list them if they wish. Reason: Deficiencies of these nutrients are rare in the US.
FAT CONTENT. You may be surprised to learn that food labels will no longer show the percentage of calories from fat. Perhaps you’re accustomed to comparing two cans of soups and, if both have similarly low levels of sodium and high levels of nutrients, choosing the brand with a lower percentage of calories from fat. So why would the FDA take away that info tidbit? Because we now know that the type of fat is more relevant than the amount, and that some fats are quite beneficial.
What bugs me: Under the new rules, manufacturers will not be allowed to show the percentage of calories from fat. This info might not be particularly helpful, but I don’t see how it is harmful to allow it to be shown on a voluntary basis.
What’s smart: Grams of total fat…saturated fat…and trans fat will still be shown, because consumers need to know how much of the various types of fats are in their food. (In fact, I wish the FDA would force manufacturers to put a skull-and-crossbones next to trans fat!)
SUGAR. Currently, sugar is listed under a label’s “total carbohydrate” section. The information is important because sugar contributes to inflammation, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Excellent addition: New labels will list not only total sugars, but also added sugars, meaning sugar that is added during processing. On average, Americans get about 16% of their total calories from added sugars…and an estimated 13% to 25% of Americans get one-fourth of their calories from added sugars. That’s horrid. The American Heart Association suggests that women limit added sugars to 100 calories per day and that men top out at 150 calories per day.
Even the sugars that occur naturally in foods need to be limited because chemically they are the same as sugars that are added during processing. However, I do believe that requiring manufacturers to list added sugars separately will help consumers catch many food companies with their pants down—because it’s going to become obvious when these companies take a perfectly healthful, natural food and adulterate it with added sugar. For instance, it will be easy to see the difference between one cup of unsweetened applesauce, with 23 g of total sugars and 0 g of added sugars…and one cup of sweetened applesauce, with 36 g of total sugars and 13 g of totally unnecessary added sugars.
TIME FRAME. The FDA expects to nail down the new rules by the end of 2014. Fair enough. But then food manufacturers get two years to comply with the new rules, so it will be nearly three more years before consumers will benefit from the label makeover.
In my opinion: This is way too long a delay! Food manufacturers already know what’s in their products, so why shouldn’t they start telling us sooner?
MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD
Several of the proposed changes, including the mandatory dual-column format for certain sizes of food packages, were initiated by citizens’ petitions—which means that your input can make a difference. The public has until June 4, 2014 to comment. To share your ideas on how to make food labels even better, click here or write to Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.
And please let us know what you think by commenting below!