Earlier this year, a revamped Nutrition Facts Panel was unveiled.
The label, first shown by First Lady Michelle Obama at a health summit in May, has been redesigned to highlight some of the ingredients in the food consumers eat.
It takes steps to provide better advice on serving sizes, calories, fat and information on the vitamins and minerals in a single serving, all in relation to the recommended 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.
People wanting a clearer explanation of how many calories are in a serving — particularly with a clearer idea of what portion of a package is meant to be a serving — are going to like the proposed label: It highlights the calorie count by both enlarging and bold-facing it.
It also will reflect the latest scientific understanding of how important it is for individuals to control the amount of some vitamins, minerals, and the sugar and they consume.
The label is slated to be appearing on grocery shelves starting in June 2018. What does it say to consumers?
The new label revamps the listings dealing with sugars and some of the nutrients in products.
Where the current label simply lists "sugar" in grams, the proposed label includes listings for "Total Sugar" and a new line saying "Includes X Grams Added Sugars."
In a memo to the FDA last October, the Food Marketing Institute said the “added sugars” listing is, at best, misleading. The group stressed that there are no means, mechanical or otherwise, to determine what sugars are added to an end product versus those that are natural. For example, the memo said, when a fruit is squeezed in a way that extracts the water and leaves the juice, is that juice considered a natural part of the eventual product or an “addition”?
The FDA took FMI's advice, deciding that adding the term “total sugars” to the label was a good idea, but it ignored the plea to either eliminate or explain the “added sugars” reference.
In the vitamins and minerals section, mention of vitamins A and C are eliminated while both vitamin D and potassium are added. These changes “are based on updated scientific information, new nutrition and public health research, more recent dietary recommendations from expert groups, and input from the public,” Anne North, a communications specialist at the National Institutes of Health, told Food Dive. The calcium and iron lines remain because those are among the nutrients not now being consumed in recommended quantities, she explained.
While the sugar and potassium mentions are important to everyone, they are particularly important to two groups: people who have Type 2 diabetes (29.1 million Americans, or 9.3% of the population) and the more than 20 million people with kidney disease. Those people tend to be avid readers of the Nutrition Facts panel.
The sugar-related information on the label is significant for everyone. On the FDA website describing and explaining the new label, the agency states, “It is difficult to meet nutritional needs while staying with calorie requirements if you consume more than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugars.”
The new label also places more emphasis on a serving's calorie count by significantly increasing the size of the word “calorie” and having it appear in a bold font. The mention of “calories from fat” is being eliminated, North said, “because research shows that the type of fat is more important than the amount.”
Serving size information is altered on the new label, enlarging the information to more emphatically point out how large a portion is intended to be.
Brian Kennedy, senior director of communications at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, told Food Dive that serving sizes are based on consumption data from federal food surveys.
"They are not arbitrarily selected by manufacturers," he said.
The USDA started using responses from the Nationwide Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) in 1994 to determine the average amount Americans older than four consume in a single seating. This information is based on responses from 1978 to 1988, Kennedy said.
While acknowledging that "clearly consumer consumption patterns have changed since then," Kennedy noted the NHANES numbers still serve as a useful benchmark, not least because they are uniformly used across the food producing and packing industry for everyone worldwide who is making packaged food products for U.S. residents.
On to the issue of fats: Even though the use of trans fat is being phased out, the “saturated fat” and trans fat” lines were left unchanged. As the agency noted in the Q&A section of the website explaining the label changes, “Trans fat will be reduced but not eliminated from foods, so FDA will continue to require it on the label."
Nutritionist Tia M. Rains, Ph.D. described her views of the new label in an editorial in the summer 2016 issue of Nutrition Close-Up, a publication of the Egg Nutrition Center.
“The nutritionist in me celebrates these changes as a positive step toward improving public health," she wrote. "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.”
Politics: The ingredient that doesn’t appear on the label
After being talked about for years and formally introduced several months ago, there may be reasons to delay the new label’s implementation.
But the recent move by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make changes to the label for meat and poultry products will not change the implementation program or the contents of the new label, North told Food Dive. Nor will a move by a group representing food manufacturers to delay implementation of the new label, she added.
“The final order regarding the label, the one issued in May of this year, is the final word on this label,” she said.
The House Freedom Caucus, which published a list of rules, regulations and executive orders for the upcoming administration to revoke, recommended that the revamped label be done away with altogether.
"This rule places regulations on the serving size of breath mints," the document states.
But that label, said Chris Young, executive director of the American Association of Meat Producers, may not be precisely the same as the one showing up down the road on meat products.
“Depending on what the FSIS wants — and they seem to be close to the same page as the FDA — there could be a slightly different label for meat, but the implementation dates would be the same as those set out by the FDA," Young told Food Dive.
“Our goal on the meat side is to ensure the public is getting accurate, helpful information about our products, distinct from what's put out there about other types of food,” he added.
In the end, that's what everyone wants: Accurate, helpful information on nutrition information labels for all products.
Accurate for now, that is. Scientific knowledge advances rapidly these days, and it's a sure bet that the next new label will be upon us in far fewer than 20 more years.