Heidi Godman

FDA’s proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label are good, but could be better

Every day, millions of Americans use the Nutrition Facts labels on food packages to make healthy choices. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently proposed changes to make the labels even more useful.

It’s an important move that could help curb the skyrocketing number of Americans with type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and other weight-related conditions. “The current labels have had the effect of reducing the total fat intake in the American diet,” says Dr. Clifford Lo, an associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. When food makers take out fat — often healthy unsaturated fat — to improve the “total fat” number on the label, they tend to add in sugar and other rapidly digested carbohydrates. “Unfortunately, this has often led to an increase in calories and sugar in the diet, now linked to increasing obesity and diabetes,” says Dr. LoExisting and proposed versions of the Nutrition Facts label for food packages

The proposed label will look a bit different than what we’re used to. It will:

  • list information about added sugars — sweeteners that are added to foods during processing — so you’ll know how much extra sugar is in the product.
  • update daily values for sodium and dietary fiber, and declare the amount of potassium and vitamin D. Both are what the FDA calls “nutrients of public health significance” that most people don’t get enough of.
  • remove the “Calories from Fat” category while continuing to list types of fat. This is important because we now know that the types of fat (saturated, unsaturated, and trans) in a person’s diet are more important for health than the amount of fat.

For foods that come in larger packages but could be consumed in one sitting, manufacturers would have to use a two-column label showing calorie and nutrition information for both a single serving and the entire package. Examples of this might be a 24-ounce bottle of soda or a pint of ice cream. That way, people would be able to easily understand how many calories and nutrients they are getting if they eat or drink the entire package at one time.

The new label must also show portion sizes that realistically reflect how much people eat, not how much they should eat.

Going farther

Will these changes help you make the best choices in the supermarket?

“They are a step in the right direction, but they don’t go far enough with sugar, ingredient listing, and nutrient claims,” says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Her opinion echoes those in two perspective pieces in tomorrow’s New England Journal of Medicine.

One is from former FDA chief Dr. David Kessler (a Harvard Medical School grad), who oversaw the creation of the original Nutrition Facts label. He wants the FDA to include a Daily Value for added sugar. He also wants added sugars to be lumped together on a package’s ingredient list. Right now, each added sugar is listed separately, “pushing ingredients such as fructose, corn syrup, dextrose, sucralose, brown rice syrup, and maltodextrin to lower positions on the [food ingredients] list,” he writes. “If we instead defined all forms of sugar as a single ingredient, sugar might emerge near the top in many products’ lists.”

Kessler also wants the new labels to list a product’s top three ingredients on the front of a package. That way, if you saw one package with a top-three ingredients list of whole-grain wheat, raisins, and wheat bran, you’d know it was probably better for you than a product with a top-three ingredients list of sugar, corn flour, and wheat flour.

The other perspective comes from George Washington University researchers Allison C. Sylvetsky and William H. Dietz, who was also the director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the CDC. They make the case that food labels should be more like the ones in Canada that say right on the front of a package if a food contains an artificial sweetener, and elsewhere list the amount of each type of sugar in each serving. The researchers say this information would help us make better food choices for ourselves and our children.

Using the Nutrition Facts label today

The FDA is still getting input on the new label, and hasn’t made final decisions yet on what it will look like. Even when a decision is made, food manufacturers will have two years to implement the changes. Here are some tips to help you before the new label debuts:

  • When it comes to sugar, follow the American Heart Association guidelines of no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men. Limit or avoid foods with added sugars such as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, brown sugar, and honey.
  • Keep track of how many servings you’re eating. The current Nutrition Facts label information is based on one serving, not one package.
  • Look at the number of calories per serving and fit that into your daily calorie goal.
  • For fat, aim for zero grams of trans fat and try to keep saturated fat low — fewer than 15 grams a day if you take in about 2,000 calories a day. Don’t work to limit unsaturated fats — they are good for health.
  • Remember that percent daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. Modify the percentage if you usually take in fewer or more calories than that.
  • Choose foods that are higher in fiber.

Comments:

  1. Terry http://howtogamble.us/

    This is pretty big change, and it’s great. It makes sense to have that calories and servings stand out. Hopefully it will help.

  2. Helen

    They need to include energy density (i.e. number of calories per gram). It is like “unit pricing” of calories, enabling shoppers to easily select the best “calorie bargains” — foods which we can be eaten in large quantities to satisfy hunger with the fewest calories. Any food can be made to look like a low-calorie food if they make the portion size small enough; for example even sugar has “only” 17 calories (per teaspoon)!

  3. antonio queiroz

    All fats increases total cholesterol, as far as I have red. Total cholesterol is a strong predictor of a many diseases.(including heart disease and diabetes).(Correct me if I’m wrong based in evidence). Why should not we limit total fat?

  4. GMO info should be listed as well! We have the right to know if there is any ingredient that could negatively impact our health. Isn’t that why we pay taxes for the FDA to exist?

  5. Jackie Keller

    Why still no information on GMO’s? If we’re talking about disclosure, the label should clearly state if the product is made with ingredients that can affect our health. Also, separating out added sugars from naturally occurring ones is a great step forward, but all carbohydrates are still lumped together as one category…

  6. John Turner

    To lead a healthy life Nutrition Facts labels on food package is essential, there is another fact that is need physical exercise, i am using to fit myself Elliptical Machine. you can also :)

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