Women Grocery shopping 1989

Food Labeling Gets First Overhaul in 20 Years

Lynn Adams
Mar 11, 2014

The FDA has proposed major changes to food labels for the first time in roughly twenty years, with the goal of helping consumers make more informed choices about the processed foods they are eating. Huh, I just learned something new about how the American lifestyle has changed in the last forty years or so; up until the 60s, there were no nutrition labels! People didn’t eat processed foods, they cooked whole foods at home. It’s a world I find it hard to imagine, and it brings to the forefront how much healthier we would be as a country if our diets today were closer to the way they were “back in the day”. Unfortunately, those days are largely gone for the majority of Americans, and that’s another discussion.

Will the new proposed food labels create more useful nutrition information for all? Some of the changes seem pretty unglamorous, such as updated daily values of sodium, dietary fiber and Vitamin D, and the removal of Vitamins A and C from labels entirely (apparently those deficiencies are history). The new labels will have many changes, and in my opinion will be easier to read and interpret. For instance, the serving size and calories per serving will be MUCH LARGER and in your face. This I will personally find useful. But let’s talk about the changes that the internet and media are buzzing about – the ones that make the food industry squirm. Number one with a high squirm factor is the requirement to list “added sugars” in all foods, singling them out from the natural sugars. Industry leaders argue that sugar is sugar and therefore there is no need to single added sugars out. However, from a nutrient standpoint the more added sugar a product has, the lower the healthy nutrient content will be. On average, Americans eat 16% of their calories from added sugars. Do we want to prioritize giving consumers better information, or industry fears about drawing attention to unhealthy products? A good question to ponder, and it seems that for now the FDA is coming down on the side of the consumer.

One of my favorite changes is that a serving size will finally reflect what an average person would consume in one sitting, which has also changed drastically in the last 20 years. One serving size today is the equivalent of 2 serving sizes 20 years ago, another sad example of how the American lifestyle has changed for the worse. But be excited for serving sizes that make sense and do not require doing math to make informed decisions. Be honest, how many of us can even estimate what 1 cup of ice cream looks like? Some serving sizes don't even make sense, who eats ¾ of a can of soup or ¾ of a cup of cereal? Just say no to doing math in your head when you’re hungry! How many people actually drink half of a 20 Oz bottle of vanilla soda in one sitting? The 10 pounds I gained writing my dissertation are a testament to how easy it is to be unaware of the serving size– and I was working on a PhD in nutrition! The FDA reports that approximately 17% of current serving size requirements will change under the new regulations. For soda, the new rules will require that an entire soda bottle (12, 16 or 20 Oz) will be one serving size. Given that many of the empty calories Americans consume are from sugary drinks such as sodas, I’d say this is a good thing.

The food industry is up in arms because the label changes will cost approximately $2 billion to implement. Are we going to start hearing the term, “job killing regulations” like when certain industries refer to EPA? But balance the cost with the savings in health care that should result from a healthier population--estimated to be $20 - 30 billion over 20  years. Even I can do the math on that one. I think that those in the food industry who object to a well-informed public should breathe a sigh of relief that the FDA isn’t proposing the at-a-glance labeling which is currently in use in Australia, Britain, Sweden and Denmark. These packaging standards put an overall healthiness rating on the FRONT of the package – imagine a star rating or a traffic light motif that tells the consumer how healthy a food is without ever having to read the fine print! If we cannot make a return to the days when labeling wasn’t necessary, then I look forward to the day we see that type of packaging in the USA.

Image from Bill Branson NIH. 

 

Lynn Adams

Lynn S. Adams, Ph.D. is an Alumni Fellow. She blogs about nutrition policy, the connections between nutrition and disease risk, the health effects of environmental exposures and the cancer prevention potential of natural products at Sci on the Fly. If you want Lynn to share her posts with you, follow her on Twitter: @lstedda68.

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