Don’t ask me why I was on NYMag.com at 4AM yesterday… but I was. So, imagine my surprise when I saw this:
Your days of glancing at a nutrition label and pretending you’ll only eat the recommended twelve chips are numbered. On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration will announce the biggest changes to nutrition labels on food packages since they became mandatory in the early 1990s. The proposed redesign, which won’t be finalized for months, looks similar to the current labels, but calories are in a much bigger font, serving sizes will be more realistic, and most controversially, added sugars must be listed. “I really like them. I’m kind of stunned actually,” Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University told the New York Times, adding, “My prediction is that this will be wildly controversial.”
While many health experts are thrilled, the food industry isn’t happy. So far they aren’t complaining publicly, possibly because First Lady Michelle Obama pushed to release the new labels, which have been in the works for a decade, and she’ll announce the changes on Thursday during a Let’s Move! anniversary event at the White House. “I don’t think anyone is going to be foolish enough to attack the first lady — that’s just stupid,” a longtime food company consultant told Politico. However, “It’s sort of a laundry list of everything the industry didn’t want.”
In looking at the video…
…I had to take a second look at the labels, themselves:
…and what actually changed:
Here’s a more extensive breakdown of what’s going on:
- Require information about “added sugars.” Many experts recommend consuming fewer calories from added sugar because they can decrease the intake of nutrient ‐ rich foods while increasing calorie intake.
- Update daily values for nutrients like sodium, dietary fiber and Vitamin D. Daily values are used to calculate the Percent Daily Value listed on the label, which help consumers understand the nutrition information in the context of a total daily diet.
- Require manufacturers to declare the amount of potassium and Vitamin D on the label, because they are new “nutrients of public health significance.” Calcium and iron would continue to be required, and Vitamins A and C could be included on a voluntary basis.
- While continuing to require “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” on the label, “Calories from Fat” would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.
In regards to the serving size recommendation, here’s the scoop there:
- Change the serving size requirements to reflect how people eat and drink today, which has changed since serving sizes were first established 20 years ago. By law, the label information on serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what they “should” be eating.
- Require that packaged foods, including drinks, that are typically eaten in one sitting be labeled as a single serving and that calorie and nutrient information be declared for the entire package. For example, a 20 ‐ ounce bottle of soda, typically consumed in a single sitting, would be labeled as one serving rather than as more than one serving.
- For certain packages that are larger and could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings, manufacturers would have to provide “dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calories and nutrient information. Examples would be a 24 ‐ ounce bottle of soda or a pint of ice cream. This 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.
Honestly, I’m excited about this. I think far too many people are confused about how to properly read a nutrition label, and simplifying it for the public will help them better understand how certain foods contribute to their health.
I also think this may have the added benefit of making the public aware of the price disparity between healthier labeled foods and not-so-healthier labeled foods. Imagine how you’d feel looking at one brand’s boxed mac-and-cheese, and comparing that nutrition label to the next brand’s, which is much healthier. Perhaps if enough people complained about that, we’d see progress there, too.
When it comes to the serving size recommendations, I think they are ambitious and a fantastic start, but I don’t think they go far enough. Foods “that are typically eaten in a single sitting” could be anything from a pint of ice cream to a family-size bag of tortilla chips to, I’m embarrassed to say, an entire king cake. (Mardi Gras, when your mom has business connects in Louisiana, was a rough time in my house.) In my experience, the average binge eater is highly likely to consume not only traditional forms of sugar-fat-salt vessels, but unconventional ones, as well. It’s not always cookies, chips or ice creams that are the culprit – entire 2-liters of sodapop, entire sleeves of buttery crackers, entire boxes of taquitos, entire packages of chicken fingers and ketchup, whole packages of hamburger helper – and I feel like many of the products that need to have the entire package’s nutrition info on the side won’t get it. Basically, this feels like a loophole.
Although, it’ll be great to finally see Marie Callendar’s pot pies no longer claim to be “two servings of 1,000 calories each.” Just fess up to it – that pie is 2,000+ calories, and since you know people are sitting down an eating all of that in one go, change that data.
I’d also like to see this extend into the ingredients list. Highlighting additives, preservatives, thickeners, uncommon leaveners, artificial coloring, conditioners, and the like will help people pay a bit closer attention to some of the more questionable ingredients in what we’re eating, and if people find that it costs more money for less stuff in the food, well… that’s something to talk to your congresspeople about. (Seriously, be a complainer.)
The NYTimes write-up about this quoted my favorite person in the world, so I’m excerpting it here:
The proposed changes include what experts say will be a particularly controversial item: a separate line for sugars that are manufactured and added to food, substances that many public health experts say have contributed substantially to the obesity problem in this country. The food industry has argued against similar suggestions in the past.
“The changes put added sugars clearly in the cross hairs,” said Dr. David A. Kessler, who was commissioner during the original push for labels in the 1990s. “America has the sweetest diet in the world. You can’t get to be as big as we’ve gotten without added sweeteners.” [source]
I’m curious as to what constitutes an “added sugar” as opposed to “natural sugar.” Do we mean sugars that naturally occur in the ingredients to a recipe? If so, would things like “apple juice concentrate,” “pear juice concentrate,” “molasses,” “honey,” and “bananas” – all ingredients you can find in the ingredients list of foods claiming to have “natural sweetness” to them and “no added sugars” – count as ‘added sugars?’ Would they simply be credited as being a part of the recipe? What differentiates between “sugars” and “added sugars?”
As FLObama said,
“Unless you had a thesaurus, a calculator and degree in nutrition, you were out of luck,” Mrs. Obama said. “Our guiding principle here is simple – that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into a grocery store, pick an item off the shelf and tell whether it’s good for your family.”
In a nod to the new added sugars line, she added: “You’ll also learn where sugar in food comes from — if sugar in yogurt is added during processing or comes from fruits. This is a huge deal.” [source]
Again, I think – in reality – this feels like a bit of a loophole since, as I mentioned above, “[insert fruit] juice concentrate” is used as a sweetener. Although it isn’t “sugar” or, even worse, “splenda,” it’s still added sweetener. It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out.
“This is a false victory,” said Barry M. Popkin, a health researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose project to map what Americans eat has found that the average American consumes 300 calories of added sugars per day. “It will affect just a small segment of consumers who carefully study nutrition fact panels.” [source]
I’m always astounded by these kinds of people – “because it’ll only help this small amount of people that I can’t actually quantify with any meaningful data, we shouldn’t celebrate this.” What?
This is the same person who shone a light on smoothies and how dangerous they can be, even knowing that most people weren’t aware. Why does it make sense to facilitate awareness in one avenue, but not the other?
People are learning every day. The Internet is making health and wellness incredibly accessible for people who might not’ve otherwise had that access. And, if we can save a few billion dollars by spending a few million educating? Guess what I’m doing?
All in all, even with my minor gripes, I’m really happy to see these recommendations, and I hope they’re put into existence. What about you?