5 Unintended Consequences of the FDA’s Proposed Nutrition Label

This is a guest post by Carol Harvey, Director of food/nutrition labeling and product development at Palate Works.

The FDA’s proposal for changes to the nutrition panel, introduced earlier this week, is broad and sweeping. This would be a major overhaul. The proposal is currently in what’s known as a “comment period” of 90 days, after which the FDA will review and potentially refine the proposed changes. Then probably another year will go by, after which manufacturers will have another 2 years to fully comply. Don’t expect changes on packages this year or even next.

Biggest change – visibility:
Giving people a “pair of glasses” to see what has always been on the label will help. Font sizes and bolding will better highlight certain items, notably calories and servings per container. However, many companies (mostly smaller/start-up and importers) have been violating the current font and label size rules for years. Labels shouldn’t require a magnifying glass to see the data, even now. Requiring manufacturers to make the same nutrition data larger/bolder is like lowering the speed limit 20 mph so people will go 10 mph slower… effective at obtaining compliance somewhere in between.

Other observations on the new proposal:
1. What are added sugars? The proposal calls for showing “added sugars”. This is a tough one to define, as the current definition of “added sugars” is rather vague. For example, it isn’t clear whether juice concentrate (which basically contains only sugar, because the fiber has been removed and vitamins are mostly destroyed during processing) will be considered added or naturally occurring. If there are such “loopholes,” many manufacturers will use them, even if it results in higher costs (refined sugar is much cheaper). Even today we have sugar “loopholes” relating to the size of the sugar molecule, such that trisaccharides (e.g., from rice malt/syrup) are not considered “sugars,” whereas disaccharides (table sugar, etc.) are, despite both being broken down in the body equally fast. Bottom line: A meaningful definition of “added sugars” will require some work.
2. Serving sizes that reflect what average Americans actually eat will now replace serving sizes reflecting what the average American ate decades ago (generally less). Is that a good idea? Will that be a message to eat more? A dual column nutrition panel that shows per serving AND totals per package is a good idea. It addresses a common situation: people not stopping at “one serving,” and not able to do the math as to how many calories are in, for example, “3.5 servings” (the whole package).
3. Adding potassium data is good, but potassium is really only an issue for those who probably don’t pay attention to nutrition anyway. Anyone who eats a couple pieces of fruit a day, plus at least one serving of veggies will get plenty of potassium, as it is in so many foods (dairy and meat as well). This nutrient is more about Americans’ love of sodium (potassium intake needs to keep up with, and ideally surpass, sodium for a healthy balance), and their problems with high blood pressure.
4. Adding vitamin D labeling will encourage massive fortification by food companies. Very few foods are great sources of natural vitamin D, but it isn’t that difficult to get if you spend time outdoors (sunlight triggers the body to produce its own vitamin D). This proposed label addition is targeted to a smaller, but perhaps growing, group of those with particularly unhealthy habits, as well as an aging population.
Sources of vitamin D: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/#h3

5. Doing away with required vitamins A and C may be a mistake. It is one of the few ways to determine to what extent a food contains some real fruit and veggies (unless supplemented, of course, which can be seen in the ingredients), versus token amounts (“spinach pasta”).

Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at palatemail @ yahoo.com.

  • quinn

    This is an interesting response to the proposed changes, but oddly enough, I think your post is, itself, mislabeled. These conversational bullet points are hardly “consequences,” unintended or otherwise. If your idea was that using a slightly alarmist title would draw readers, well, it worked for me…but the consequence is that I am not impressed.

  • rubicon bill


  • Dixie

    Obesity at its finest! Way to go Moochelle!

  • Drew Newman

    For a website who’s slug-line is “Eat a bit better”, I often see some pretty strong criticisms on little improvements companies and governments make (especially the post about CVS not selling cigarettes, and the article was about doing away with candy as well). Nothing is ever going to be done perfectly, nor is it going to change instantly. Small change is good, and it’s the beginning of things getting better. When people buy a soda/juice/vitamin water….most people drink the whole thing, not knowing that the nutrition facts aren’t for the whole bottle. That change alone makes this whole change a good thing.

  • Alexis

    Great article except for the part about potassium. I am a clinical RD and potassium is a HUGE concern for our renal patients. Renal failure is on the rise big time (due to the increase in diabetes) and therefore, more focus on potassium levels is also on the rise. People with chronic kidney disease (CKD) cannot excrete potassium efficiently and therefore need a low potassium diet to prevent hyperkalemia. Therefore, this is why the FDA has focused on it for labeling purposes.