A nutrition scientist’s perspective on the new food label

Nutrition Facts Panel with Magnifying Glass

Featured article in the Summer 2016 Issue of Nutrition Close-Up; written by Tia M. Rains, PhD

There’s been a great deal of activity in Washington, D.C. lately resulting in some significant changes in the food and nutrition landscape. Most notably, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an overhaul of the Nutrition Facts Panels that appears on all foods and beverages. This is the first major change in the nutrition label since the early 1990s which, according to the FDA, “will help people make informed decisions about the foods they eat and feed their families.”1

Indeed, serving size and calories per serving will soon be displayed more prominently on the label in larger, bold font. And serving sizes will be adapted to more closely reflect what people actually consume. Gone are the days of a 20-ounce bottle of soda being labeled as multiple servings. Under the new guidelines, a single serve package such as this will need to provide the nutrition information for the entire package. For larger, multi-serving packages, nutrition information will be displayed on a single serving basis as well as for the entire package.

Other changes include the addition of “total sugars” and “added sugars,” and removal of “calories from fat.” The list of mandatory vitamins and minerals has also changed from vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron to vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. These updates reflect newer research and dietary guidelines on nutrients that are typically consumed at levels below recommendations.

However, newer research was not applied to other nutrients, specifically dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol remains on the label, both as an absolute amount and relative to its daily value, defined as 300 mg. This despite the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that removed the daily limit of 300 mg/day.

The nutritionist in me celebrates these changes as a positive step toward improving public health. Communicating relevant nutrition information in a format that is easy to digest (pun intended) should allow consumers to make smarter food choices. This seems particularly true for multi-serve snack foods and beverages that previously may have been misleading because the nutrition content was presented for a fraction of what was contained in the package. As a consumer that is sensitive to daily calorie intake, this change is very appealing to me.

The scientist in me is curious about whether these efforts will truly lead to better choices by the majority of consumers. To the best of my knowledge, there are few if any studies to suggest eating behaviors have been changed by more prominently presenting nutrition information on a food package. And it remains unclear if and how the new labels will help consumers build the healthy dietary patterns recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.

That said, there is some indication that displaying calorie content on fast food menus affects food choices. Several studies have shown that diners select approximately 100 fewer calories at lunch when calorie values are displayed next to food choices 2,3 although more recent analyses suggest that this may be driven by subsets of the population,4 specifically those that are interested in the information, such as people that are already health conscious.

Whether alterations in the food label ultimately affect overall public health remains to be determined. With obesity rates continuing to climb and type 2 diabetes right on its heels, it’s clear that wide-sweeping changes are needed within numerous sectors. Enhancing clarity of the nutrient label seems like a step in the right direction, although some would say it doesn’t go far enough to explain how some ingredients affect health (e.g., saturated fat, added sugars). At the very least, I hope the “buzz” around these changes raises awareness of the importance of considering nutrients within a food prior to purchasing.

 

References
1. http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm502182.htm (Accessed June 29, 2016)
2. Dumanovsky T, Huang CY, Nonas CA, Matte TD, Bassett MT, Silver LD. Changes in energy content of lunchtime purchases from fast food restaurants after introduction of calorie labelling: cross sectional customer surveys. BMJ. 2011;343:d4464.
3. Tandon PS, Zhou C, Chan NL, Lozano P, Couch SC, Glanz K, Krieger J, Saelens BE. The impact of menu labeling on fast-food purchases for children and parents. Am J Prev Med.2011;41:434-8.
4. Oh A, Nguyen AB, Patrick H. Correlates of Reported Use and Perceived Helpfulness of Calorie Information in Restaurants Among U.S. Adults. Am J Health Promot. 2015 Jul 9. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 26158681