This is a guest blog post by Carol Harvey, director of nutrition labeling at Palate Works.
At the risk of causing some to choke on their French canned duck leg confit (a great product, despite no Nutrition Facts), I’d like to highlight some little-known or underappreciated facts about US nutrition labeling.
Yes, US nutrition labels have their shortcomings, despite 20+ years of evolution, and enforcement can be weak at best, but compared to the European versions (and most of the rest of the world’s) we kick asparagus. Here are just a few reasons:
1. US labels were the first mandated and are still the model. European countries and the EU have yet to actually require nutrition labeling (except when nutrition or health claims are made), although that could change this year if the EU finalizes regulations similar to those in the US.
2. US nutrition panels are easier to read (when compliant with regulations): bolder, bigger fonts (OK, often due to not having to squeeze several languages on a package) and more consistent in format. On small packages, such as fruit & nut bars, this can be particularly eye-challenging (see photo above, where the top two are from the US; the other two from EU, with the bottom one, from Sweden, lacking any nutrition info). Got a microscope in your pocket?
3. European labels skimp on info. When data is provided on European products, not as many nutrients are shown: no data for trans fat, vitamins or minerals, and about a third of labels omit saturated fat, fiber, sugar and sodium. Trying to cut back on sugar or saturated fat but want more fiber? Good luck comparing foods in Europe.
4. US products must show serving sizes in common measures (cups, slices, etc.) and by weight in grams, plus the number of servings per package. Products of the same category/type generally must use the same serving size (aka the “reference amount”), a quantity that is NOT made up by food companies (although some small manufacturers violate it, usually due to ignorance).
Products in the EU often only give data per 100 g portion, although more are now offering info by FDA-comparable serving size as well. Per 100 g is great for A-to-B comparison, but less meaningful when you will consume a portion other than 100 g (a fairly large quantity for dry foods, and almost never the amount in a package). You’d need to do the math to figure out how many servings per package (rarely a whole number), as well as the actual nutrition per serving. Got a scale and calculator handy?
As for what’s inside European food packages…
1. Products are generally higher in sodium, with snack foods often packing 2x more than similar products in the US. These Spanish/Portugese PepsiCo corn snacks have 400 mg sodium in a 27g package (which is a slightly smaller portion than the US and EU standard serving size or “dose” of 30g):
2.Trans-fat is in many foods, and not only is it missing from the nutrition panel, but, as with this candy bar, often it’s unlabeled in the ingredients (e.g., “vegetable shortening” or “vegetable fat,” instead of “partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil”). This can happen in the US also, but mostly with small companies or imported products… and it’s illegal.
Interestingly, some products sold in Europe have US-style Nutrition Facts panels, but are missing the trans-fat (required in the US since 2006), or are otherwise out of compliance, meaning they can’t be sold in the US, but are OK in Europe. Here’s the nutrition info for the same candy bar (with strangely low sugar content considering it’s the first ingredient):
Note: See that 1 g fiber? It’s not from whole grains but cocoa. This is a chocolate-flavored wafer bar. Also, any trans fat will be hidden under “total fat” (which is quite high), not saturated fat.
3. Breads, snack foods and sweets have less fiber (fewer whole grains) than in the US. Germany is the main exception, at least for crackers and breads, due to a tradition of using whole grain rye and wheat.
4. Sweetened, flavored sodas and faux juice beverages are very popular in Europe. Orange Fanta often shows as “orange juice” and the lemon flavor as “lemonade” on menus (including in mountain huts, much to my disappointment), and the orange flavor is a common substitute for orange juice in sangria at bars/restaurants in Spain (doubly disappointing).
5. There are fewer good beverage options overall; for example, lightly- or unsweetened bottled teas found almost everywhere in the US are rare in Europe, but artificially sweetened and flavored “diet” teas abound, often masquerading as “natural, healthy” drinks, since “diet” is somehow equated with “healthy,” a term that is regulated in the US.
Outside of Europe, nutrition labeling and healthy options are even more scarce (exceptions are Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom followed our lead). Considering the meager funds allotted to FDA for compliance and enforcement, and the gazillions of food products subject to regulation… the US is one of the better places for knowing what’s in your food, and one of the few where you could actually have a Fooducate app.
Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at palatemail [AT] yahoo [DOT] com.