January 31, 2013

Next Generation Nutrition Facts Label: What to Add or Ax?

A recent Washington Post op-ed,  FDA Should Revamp Nutrition Labels, by Michael Jacobson, PhD, and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, got me thinking about what I would add or ax from the next generation Nutrition Facts label. Yes, rumor has it we may eventually see a next generation Nutrition Facts label. Jacobson’s op-ed indicated sometime in 2013 as did a well written HuffPost Food blog, but I’m not holding my breath!

It does looks like we will soon, (ah, a relative term when speaking about government regulations), see more Nutrition Facts for standard menu items in restaurants and retail food establishments, thanks due to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Any additional Nutrition Facts are welcomed!

Our current Nutrition Facts label came into being due to the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act and began appearing on packaged foods around 1994. The delay was due to the time it took government agencies to develop, get public comments on proposed rules and finalize this vast group of regulations. Prior to 1994 the required nutrition info on labels focused more on vitamins and minerals and less on key nutrients related to today’s health concerns.

The current Nutrition Facts label has definitely made it easier for people to more easily choose healthier packaged foods. A few key revisions, however, could simplify the label and help consumers more quickly and easily make purchasing decisions.

On my AX list:

  • Narrow the Numbers: As Jacobson notes, “…the standard label offers two dozen numbers…” This is far too many numbers to digest. It’s overload! Put the focus on the key nutrients of most interest and concern to most Americans, namely calories, carbohydrate (reported as Total carbohydrate), dietary fiber (ax soluble and insoluble, (recommended by the Institute of Medicine back in 2001), protein, fat (reported as Total fat), saturated fat, trans fat (the only addition to our Nutrition Facts in 2006), cholesterol and sodium.
  • Delete Percent Daily Values (DV): DV gives the percent of that nutrient which a serving of the food contains based on a calorie intake of 2000 a day (supposed average number of calories most people need). A notation in small print to explain DV is required on most labels (size-dependent). I still remember hearing Dr. Kessler, the FDA Commissioner at the time, talk about the virtue of providing DV. This was supposed to help consumers figure how foods could fit into their daily eating plan. To me the DV are simply confusing clutter. They just crowd the label with excess numbers and cause MEGO (my eyes glaze over). For starters, 2000 calories a day is an excessive amount for many and not enough for others.
  • Don't Allow Front-of-Label Systems: There’s been and continues to be front-of-label wars. Several systems, from simple to complex, have been proposed or are being used. Think Guiding Stars and NuVal. Food industry trade organizations have attempted to use or proposed others, including the American Beverage Association which has given us the calorie count on the front of beverages. FDA has not looked kindly at these systems and rightly so. Why clutter labels with more numbers or systems to figure out? Please, just make the Nutrition Facts label simple and easy to understand.
  • Cut the 4 Required Vitamins and Minerals: It’s now mandatory to provide the percent of Vitamin A, C and the minerals iron and calcium. If claims are made about other vitamins and minerals the amount must also be given. These numbers are provided as a percent of the adult Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) and have very little meaning to most people. The only one that’s easy to figure is calcium. That’s because the recommended amount is 1,000 mg/day – based on percent, it easy math. Unless there’s a more understandable way developed to offer info about key vitamins and minerals I vote for axing to de-clutter the label.  

On my ADD list:

  • Separate Out the “Sugars”: Listed under Total carbohydrate is “sugars.” Wonder why it’s sugars (plural) and not sugar? FDA defines the term sugars as all one or two unit sugars in foods. Translated that’s all sugars which naturally occur in foods, such as the glucose and fructose in fruit and milk, as well as the added sugars in our foods. Yes, the likes of dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, fruit juice concentrates, evaporated cane sugar (and the list goes on). Talk about downright confusing! Jacobson suggests that the label only include “refined sugars added to food and not the naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables and milk.” I agree whole heartedly! At this point the only way to assess how much added sugars is in your foods is by scanning the ingredients for all the sources of sugars which means you’ve got to master all the names and count them up.
  • Make Serving Sizes Realistic and Honest: Currently manufacturers must use standard reference servings with a household measure, such as 1 slice of bread is 30 gram (weight), 1 slice. These have helped greatly! I would not like to see serving sizes increased to reflect the amounts Americans eat. Isn’t large portions one of our BIG problems today! There does seem to be movement towards honesty in the number of servings in a container, such as a reporting a 20 ounce soda as 1 serving vs. the 2.5 currently allowed. This change has my vote.
  • Point Out Potassium: Info about potassium is now required only if a claim is made about the potassium content. But since the current Nutrition Facts label came into existence (1994) nutrition research shows that consuming sufficient potassium (at least 4,700 mg/day) can help blunt the impact of excess sodium on blood pressure. And, most Americans currently eat too much sodium (~3,400 mg/day) and not enough potassium. Our main sources of potassium are fruits, vegetables and dairy foods. Surprised we don't get enough?

Let’s push for a simplified Nutrition Facts label on the next evolution. Make the label one that helps us make food decisions on the fly - as most of us shop or eat – and not expect the Nutrition Facts label to substitute for nutrition education and counseling. Healthy eating is not accomplished by choosing this or that healthier packaged food alone. It happens when we, day after day, week after week, choose mainly healthy foods and put together healthy meals and snacks.

I particularly enjoyed how Jacobson ended his op-ed: “But let’s also hope that Americans eat a lot of foods that don’t have labels and are the healthiest: fresh fruits and vegetables.” I’m in agreement!