By: Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD
On Friday 5/20/16, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States unveiled a new food label (see image). Aesthetically speaking, the new label is easier to read than its predecessor was. Scientifically speaking however, the new label provides an array of new and important information; information that is particularly appealing to nutrition and public health professionals such as myself; though less so to food manufacturers.
Why bother with new labels after all these years?
The obesity epidemic began its surge upwards in the ‘80s and ‘90s, during the “fat is bad” era of food, where fats were replaced with other ingredients, including sugar, salt, and faux-fats - remember “olestra?” Since this period, overweight and obesity have boomed in the United States and other Westernized countries with two out of every three people being overweight or obese.
In more recent years, with advancing economies and globalization, developing countries have been seeing rates of overweight, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other chronic illnesses increase precipitously, such that there are now more overweight and obese individuals globally than there are malnourished. While reducing undernutrition is of course a GREAT thing, increasing chronic disease and obesity places the countries and the global economy at risk due to health care costs and loss of productive individuals.
In an effort to reduce rates of newly-developing overweight, obesity, and chronic disease, the Food and Drug Administration has taken a giant leap forward with its new food labels; and this how they did it.
First, the serving information has changed so that it represents how people “actually” consume foods and beverages. I don’t know how many times in my 12 years as a dietitian and public-health practitioner I have individuals demonstrate (with their hands) a portion to me that is actually two to three times what the actual portion should be. Now those “individual” 20-oz bottles of soda, which in the past had 2.5 servings or approximately 250 calories, will now be considered one portion with 250 calories. This is more realistic, because really, how often have you ever only had 1/3 of the bottle?
Secondly, the size of the calorie count has increased and is bold. When looking at the label, now you can instantly see how many calories are in a portion of that food; and while not all calories are created equal, as a calorie of soda is far worse than a calorie of rutabaga, it is a critical piece of information for consumers to have, particularly those who are watching their weight or waists.
Third, daily values have changed to reflect the current science on diet. Although, in general, I do not recommend individuals to look at the percent daily value as it relates to a 2,000 calorie diet which does not fit many people, the information will likely always be there. For many people who have chronic disease, paying attention to the absolute number is more important. For example, a person with heart disease would want to pay attention to the absolute mg of sodium in the food, not the percent daily value. Same goes for grams of carbohydrate and individuals with diabetes.
One of the larger and most important changes is the addition of “added sugars.” This is important for the mere fact that in the past, sugars were all lumped together. However, the problem with this is that a piece of fruit, say, an apple, automatically has sugar in it, natural sugar, fructose, inherent to the fruit. Putting an “old” label on an apple would report it as having 15grams of carbohydrate and 11 grams of sugar (4 grams of fiber). The “new” label on an apple would report it as having 15 grams of carbohydrate, 0 grams of added sugar.
The government, in its most recent dietary guidelines, set limits on the amount of sugar individuals should consume on a daily basis. Men, for example, should consume no more than 150 calories from added sugar (~9 teaspoons of sugar or 37.5 grams). Women on the other hand, should consume no more than 100 calories from added sugar (~6 teaspoons or 25grams). Thus, seeing a food label with the line, “15 grams of added sugars” is a great teaching tool and resource to allow consumers to know the amount of added sugar in that food item.
Finally, the last addition is the absolute value of micronutrients in the food product, such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, and others, and not just the percent daily value; which again, means very little to people. In particular, food labels will be adding potassium and vitamin D information, two nutrients that we need to eat more of for bone health, for cardiovascular health, and for metabolic health in general.
On the whole, as a practitioner and consumer, I am very encouraged to see these new labels. I still advocate that people eat as close to nature as possible, but think that these changes are for the better. Will these new labels influence people’s eating habits? Time will only tell, but I do give a major thumbs up for highlighting added sugars in foods. This is a nutrient that too many people eat way too much of; and if the worst thing that happens is that food manufacturers decrease the amount of added sugar in their food product, then, I’m OK with that. One small step in a better direction.