10 Nutrition Label Improvements the FDA MUST Implement

The FDA is planning a minor facelift to the 20 year old nutrition label. When nutrition labels were introduced into the market, the food industry battled vehemently against them, while the government and health organizations explained that providing detailed information would help consumers make healthier choices. Fast forward to 2011, and it’s clear that the labels did not achieve their goal.

While more people are aware of the importance of proper nutrition, most of us still cannot understand what’s in a product and whether it’s better than a similar one down the shelf.

What changes is the FDA planning?

A proposal is in the works to change several parts of the label, including more accurate serving sizes, a greater emphasis on calories and a diminished role in the daily percent values for substances like fat, sodium and carbohydrates. Read more…

Seriously? Will these small changes help consumers choose less processed foods. Wake up Uncle Sam, you can’t fight obesity with cap guns. Bring out the heavy artillery please.

Here is Fooducate’s list of changes to food labels:

1. Real serving size. “More accurate serving sizes” as the FDA says sounds fishy. Let’s get REAL here. Have you ever noticed the ridiculously small serving sizes on packages – 3 Oreos? 15 potato chips? Or a single serve 20 fl oz bottle of cola written up as containing 2.5 servings? Manufacturers like to minimize the servings to toddler size portions so that the nutrition facts per serving won’t seem too bad (calories, sugar, etc…). This is misleading and needs to change to reflect how people really consume food and drink.

2. Daily values are important. Don’t ditch them! People need to know that a can of soup with 1200mg of sodium is more than 50% of the daily maximum for healthy people, and more than 75% of the daily max for about half the population.

3. Ingredients. Focus on what makes up the food, not just the numbers on a few key nutrients. We all know that manufacturers have ways to pump up nutrient values of foods to make them seem healthy. Look at any sugary kids’ cereal fortified with vitamins and minerals that are created in a lab. That’s not real food, folks.

It would be very beneficial to see a percentage amount of the main ingredients in the list, as well as a highlight on controversial ingredients. See this example, a leading kids cereal (guess which one)

Sugar [41%] , Corn Flour [20%], Wheat Flour[15%], Whole Oat Flour[8%], Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (One or More of: Coconut, Cottonseed, and Soybean) (Less than 0.5 g Trans Fat Per Serving), Salt, Sodium Ascorbate and Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Reduced Iron, Natural Orange, Lemon, Cherry, Raspberry, Blueberry, Lime, and Other Natural Flavors, Red No. 40, Blue No. 2, Yellow No. 6, Zinc Oxide, Niacinamide, Turmeric Color, Blue No. 1, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Thiamin Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Vitamin A Palmitate, Annatto Color, BHT (Preservative), Folic Acid, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12.

Get it? Sugar is the first ingredient, 41% by weight!!! Which leads us to the next point…

4. Sugar and ADDED sugar. Currently there is no FDA defined level of maximum daily consumption of sugar. People don’t know if 27 grams of sugar is a big chunk of their daily allowance or not. For sodium, fats, and vitamins, the “percent of daily value” (DV) clearly lets you know if you’re getting a low or high amount. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at most 125 grams of total sugar per day.

Additionally, the nutrition label states the amount of total sugar in a serving, but it does not indicate whether the sugar is added to the food, occurs naturally, or both. Caloric-ly, there is no difference between added sugar and sugar found naturally in fruits and vegetables. But the benefit of fruits containing naturally occurring sugars is in the additional vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidantss and phytochemicals they provide. Added sugars provide no health benefits. They are truly empty calories. People should choose products with as little added sugar as possible. Unfortunately, today consumers can only guess how much sugar has been added to a product.

5. Zero should be zero. Did you know that if a product contains trans fat, but less than 0.5 grams per serving, it can legally be labeled as 0 gram of trans fat? This is ridiculous. Serving sizes can be “calibrated” to be just under half a gram’s worth of trans-fat and receive the coveted zero number. But when wolfing down a snack bag (real serving size much larger than labeled – see point #1),  you could be getting even 1.25 grams of trans-fat, all while thinking that the product contains none at all.

6. No more qualified health claims. The FDA allows manufacturers to place health claims on products based on sound scientific evidence. But in the past few years, allowances for “limited research” has become acceptable, as long as the claim is “qualified” with mouse print disclaimers elsewhere on the package (usually a tiny font at the bottom). This does not serve consumers’ best interest and creates a false halo of health in places it should not.

7. Caffeine content. Products that contain caffeine should clearly state the amount. People are often surprised to discover caffeine in soft drinks, cakes, and other snack items. Some energy drinks contain ridiculously high amounts.

8. Better allergy and intolerance info. More than 30 Millions Americans suffer from some sort of allergy or food intolerance. Although the presence of the 8 major allergens is clearly stated (it’s the law), there are fuzzy areas. For example, when a plant manufactures a product without peanuts, but uses a production line that processes peanuts as well, there is no clear wording to consumers. “Processed in a plant that also manufactures peanuts” does not make the decision easy for a parent to decide.

9. Allow rBGH-free labels. rBGH / rBST is a hormone injected into cows to increase their milk output. The hormone has been associated with various health risks for humans consuming the milk. Bowing to industry pressure in the 1990’s, the FDA required manufacturers who chose NOT to use milk from rBGH cows and put that information on the label to ALSO state that that there is no significant difference between rBGH and rBGH-free dairy. In the past few years we have seen announcements from major dairy brands that they will not be using milk from rBGH cows. Why not see that info on the label as well?

10. GMO labeling. In Europe, government food agencies require labeling of ingredients from genetically modified organisms. Consumers voted with their wallet and chose not to buy those products. Shouldn’t Americans be granted the same basic freedom of choice?

What to do at the supermarket:

Don’t hold your breath for our suggested changes. And not even for the gentle changes the FDA is planning. You can be sure that each change will be fought over by lobbying groups who will drag things out as long as possible. In the meantime, we’re here and on your mobile phones (iPhone / Android) as a resource to learn about nutrition labels and hard to pronounce ingredients, and ultimately to make healthy grocery choices.

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  • WF

    I’d like to point out a correction:  Actually, serving sizes  are NOT determined by manufacturers – they are determined by federal regulations, and are set for all different categories of foods (check out 21 CFR 101).  So a food manufacturer isn’t deceiving consumers by “calibrating” serving sizes or picking a “ridiculously small serving size” (as you suggest in the article above).  The size of the package only determines the number of servings provided (not the other way around). 

  • http://twitter.com/Miss_Ash_of_PP PerilouslyPrecocious

    And how about none of this “natural flavoring” nonsense?  I want to know _exactly_ what is in the food I’m consuming.  “natural” and “artificial” flavoring doesn’t cut it. 

  • Jack Sprat

    Your first 5 labeling demands are OK, the second 5 not so much. Why label every food with every detail of every foodie whim? Why not instead encoiurage FDA to set up guideliines for voluntary additional labeling for caffeine or dyes or GMO or whatever? Purveyors of premier products should find additional label claims add value for concerned customers and those with special needs, who would seek out and gladly pay for labeled premium quality. Most of us consumers find no value in labels stating the obvious and prefer not to pay extra for them.

    • FrugalArugula

      Just for fun. How are these things “foodie”?

      You have a problem with zero being zero and not a flat out lie because the amount “listed” for a serving makes the amount “negligible”? Who designated that serving size (which you deemed o-k)? Likely the person who wanted the negligible “zero”.

      Fake health claims?

      Caffeine content is HUGE. I’d really love to know that my dark chocolate bar is going to keep me up all night, oh wait, I do, because I’m a foodie. But non-foodies may not think of this. Just, for instance.

      Allergen info? Where’s the harm? It’s like the zero thing. People ARE affected… maybe you’re lucky.

      And as for the last two, maybe you don’t care where your food comes from or to be given any indication of how it was raised/grown. But I don’t need extra hormones or antibiotics, and neither do children. It’s flat out dangerous.

      Sorry i fail to see how theses are foodie or that allergen info is not relevant.

      • Jack Sprat

        Well, there you go!  See how you would eagerly pay extra for food labeled with marginally useful information the majority of us find mundane and excessive? That’s what I’m talking about — have FDA oversee standards for voluntary premium labeling of premium food products for premium consumers. FDA could take a fee, they win. Premium food sellers could step up prices, they win. Premium consumers get all the informational tidbits they crave and more, they win. The majority of us keep the same old basic labeling on the same old wholesome, affordable food that’s satisfied us for decades, we win. The market decides, it wins. It’s win-win-win-win-win! And how often does that happen?

        • mikes

          Dear Mr. Sprat,

          Where exactly are you getting wholesome food?  That is the point: you have to hunt it down… with generally insufficient information.   Given, simply counting the ingredients on the label is a reasonable hueristic indicator of wholesomeness, but not entirely ideal. 

          As far as affordability, that is relative.  I can afford to buy premium foods, but not everyone can.  As I pay more and more for the obesity epidemic via the tax rolls, that may not continue to be the case for me either. 

          And I’d happily give us a picture of an elf or a flower for some additional information.  Where is the harm?   Perhaps some sales will slow, but the manufacturers will meet the changed demand and continue to make a profit.  As you say: win-win! 

  • Mary

    Not knowing how much sugar content is not advantageous to the the consumer as it makes it difficult to analyze the content properly. Zero should mean zero always.

  • WF

    Regarding point #5 “zero should be zero”… I’m looking for some clarification.  FDA regulations (again, see 21 CFR) make allowances for rounding for all nutrients, not just trans fat – although this seems to get the most attention.  For example, foods with less than 5 calories can declare 0 calories on the label.  Above 50 calories, calories are declared on labels in 10 calorie increments, based on rounding.   Is that reasonable?

    If we accept the premise that some amount less than 0.5 g of trans fat should be labeled, how low do you go?  At what minimum amount is it feasible to accurately quantify trans fat in a food (considering current analytical techniques)?  If a food contains 0.25 grams of trans fat, would you want to see that on a label and round it to 0.3?  What if a food contains 0.1 grams of trans fat?  What about 0.05 grams of trans fat?  “Zero” can never really be “zero”. 

    So should the label on skim milk indicate that it contains up to 1 milligram (that’s right, 1/1,000 of a gram) of trans fat per cup? Would that be a helpful piece of information?  Also, let’s not forget there is a physiological difference between trans
    fats derived from processes like hydrogenation of oils, and trans fats
    that are naturally-occurring (as in meats and dairy products). 

    At some point, it needs to be decided what level is practical, and of public health significance.  “Zero” just isn’t realistic.

    • SRG

      I agree that it is valid to determine a cutoff, because at some point the amount is negligible even if it isn’t zero. That being said, given the fact that the RDA for trans fats in 2 grams, 0.5 grams is 1/4 of that, which is hardly insignificant. And like the article says, if the serving size is unrealistic (and it often is) and you eat 3 servings, you are already at 75% DV.   

      • WF

        Actually, there is no RDA for trans fats.  Sugars and trans fats do not have RDAs, which is also why you will not see a %DV for these nutrients on nutrition labels. 

        Can you please provide a source for your information?  I think you are mistaken. 

  • Worriedmom

    LABEL GMO’s! Top of the list, Most important by FAR! Watch “The future of Food”. Check out these links-http://organicconsumers.org/monsanto/index.cfm

    Our food supply is in peril.

  • Julia9874

    I’m OK with them listing anything under 0.5 as zero, but am NOT OK with them advertising it as “free of” or as “Zero” of whatever the thing is (fat, sugar, etc)

    I’d like them to lable GMO.  If it is so great, why can’t we know what it is…guess it can’t be that great if they need to hide it.

    But my biggest pet peeve is the serving size, and that there are “approx.” so many servings in a conatiner.  You need to be extremely well versed in algebra to know exactly how many calories are in a product, because they don’t tell you if it is over or under, so you have to do math and multiply the service size by the full number of servings, then subtract that from the amount contained in the product, then divide the remainder into a serving, etc..

    (and I totally agree w/ “natural flavorings”)

  • Gerome

    The article begins by pointing out that the first iteration of the nutrition label failed to help us make healthier choices. And it is reasonable to ask why a new version of the label will be any better. (I do like the added sugar label, though!)

    It makes me wonder exactly who uses nutrition labels. My hunch is that there are three groups of people. Those who are very conscientious and eat well, and perhaps refer to labels as they shop, but for the most part, do not need a label. (The readers of this blog are likely in this group — you folks who always remind us to eat unprocessed whole foods.) Those in the middle who are learning what to eat and get a benefit from the label and try to make better choices. And those who don’t give a hoot, don’t read labels, eat poorly, and no matter what you do, you will not change their habits.

    I think we expect too much from labeling. The problem with poor nutrition/obesity and related illness is not caused by or remedied by labeling. Certainly some front-of-pack and deceptive claims have helped to confuse customers.

    Nutrition is not really that easy to understand. What HAPPENS if I eat too much salt? Sugar? Cheese? Beef? If the government tells me I’m out of the guidelines, I need to be able to know the health implications of that behavior before I’ll change my ways. And that is very very confusing. Just look back in the discussions here on saturated fat. It’s either demon or no problem. Read Gary Taubes. He’s a strong voice at odds with a lot of research.

    Not that these are the cure-all by any means, but if I could change anything about the landscape in US nutrition, it would be to increase physical activity for kids by A LOT, and reintroduce “home economics” cooking and general nutrition in the classroom.

  • Allison

    Any new, REAL information is much appreciated by this compulsive label reader. One thing bothers me. I read recently that the regulators want calorie counts moved to the front of the label. That information is terribly misleading, especially if it keeps people from turning the can/package over to see what’s actually inside. All those folks who still think a calorie is a calorie is a calorie will be just as likely to pick up a 100-calorie package of Oreos as a 125 calorie package of a frozen vegetable with real butter added, thinking they’re so virtuous. Aaarrgh.

  • B Skuplik

    My favorite is “serving size: 1/2 a cookie”. Half a cookie? really?!! Great list!

  • http://sweatlikeapig.com/ Tara @ Sweat like a Pig

    Finally, I hope they recognise that sugar is what we should be tracking and stop the attack on fat! The one thing I don’t have a problem with is the serving size: it’s really not that hard to read the label and figure out how much fat/calories/carbs etc you’re taking in, but I think having small serving sizes such as ’15 chips’ does serve a purpose of reminding people what they SHOULD be eating.

  • Cass

    I like most of the suggestions, but I’m kind of iffy on completely replacing serving size with “realistic” serving sizes.  Sure, most people don’t eat just three Oreos–but I think part of the point is that (if you’re going to eat any Oreos at all) you *should* just be eating three Oreos.  I realize some brands use serving size trickery to look healthier than the standard alternative (like nonstick sprays vs. oil and fake coffee creamers vs. half and half, for one), but many times the recommended serving size is small because it ought to be.  Maybe it would be possible to have a recommended serving size and a “what happens if you eat the whole pint” sort of serving size?  I’ve seen this on 20 oz soda bottles.  But I think conceding that most people are going to eat six times the recommended serving is just as much a problem as (if not more than) requiring people to *gasp* do basic multiplication to figure out how many calories they’re eating.

    • Lisa

      Exactly. I guess if someone HAD to have Oreos or junk food, it would be better to stick to the lowest serving possible.

  • Lisa

    Serving size labeling only bothers me when it’s in grams. I don’t know what the hell 10 grams of a certain food is, and I don’t want to haul my food scale every time to find out!
    I’d rather count out 20 nachos than guess at it.

    It would also be helpful to know the difference between a serving size dry and one cooked. eg 1/4 dry cup of couscous is x amount of calories with so and so many calories/fat/etc, but a 1/2 cup cooked is x amounts. Some packages do this, some don’t. I find it mostly with cereals and only then is it an estimate based on added milk.

  • http://www.drugrecalls.com Jowall

    Along with common nutrition labels, the FDA also needs to plan a major “facelift” for pharmaceutical drug labels. In the past few months they have recalled almost 50 drugs for mislabeling. You can go to a drug recall site to see an amended list of these mislabeled pharmaceuticals. Hopefully in the future, properly labeled consumer products will decrease the list of recalls and improve general health.