In the era of health crazes and anti-obesity measures, the Nutrition Facts label is often one of the first items a potential shopper looks at when purchasing groceries. While these labels are intended to help "make quick, informed food choices that contribute to a healthy diet," they are fraught with misleading numbers and overly general assumptions that can result in confusion and poor choices.
The modern day Nutrition Facts label has its origins in the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990. This granted the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) authority to mandate the Nutrition Facts label on most foods, as well as to standardize the nutrients and components that must be present.
In 1991, the FDA adopted 26 new food regulations for the purpose of implementing the NLEA, including ones that created Reference Daily Intakes (RDIs) for vitamins and minerals and Daily Reference Values (DRVs) for other food components (cholesterol, unsaturated fat, etc.). Together, these two distinctions comprise the "Daily Values" concept seen on the Nutrition Facts labels.
Why does all of this matter? Clearly, the FDA has spent the past decades attempting to minimize consumer confusion and promote transparency surrounding proper nutrition guidelines. However, the tendency to view the data on these labels as gospel is impractical, and the numbers are often misleading given the standards used to develop them.
Many of the RDIs were adopted from work done by the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS had already created Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for most vitamins and minerals, but the FDA sought to develop DRVs for key nutrients like cholesterol, fiber, and sodium that did not have established RDAs.
The RDA for a given food is defined as the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of 97-98% of people. The key word here is sufficient -- a person may benefit from an increased consumption of Vitamin C, for example, yet would be led to believe that one glass of orange juice is more than enough.
The FDA also had to establish DRVs for fat, total carbohydrates, and protein — three of the most well-known and vilified components of the nutrient facts labels. Each one of these macronutrients has an entire slew of diet fads that eliminates it from the diet completely, making it all the more important that any health claims are based in accuracy. The current labeling system is based on a 2,000-calorie diet, with the stipulation that no more than 30% of daily calories come from fat, no more than 60% for carbohydrates, and no more than 10% of calories from protein.
For most women, 2,000 calories each day is simply too high. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), most women who are not moderately active need between 1600 and 1800 calories each day. This number would likely be even lower for those who were trying to lose weight, since the addition of exercise alone is typically not sufficient to create the necessary calorie deficit.
Furthermore, studies have shown that a diet composed of 20-25% fat, rather than 30%, led to a two-fold increase in weight loss. Similarly, another study explained that women who obtained ~30% of their calories from protein lost more weight and a higher percentage of body fat than those who garnered only ~16% of their calories from protein. Simply put, there is evidence that the percentages on the Nutrition Facts label are based off of less than ideal DRVs.
To make matters worse, the FDA released a new set of nutrition guidelines in 2016 that increased the DRV for fat from 65 grams to 78 grams. The serving sizes were also updated for many products to reflect "the amounts of foods and beverages that people are actually eating." According to the FDA, the previous serving size for ice cream was 1/2 cup, but is changing to 2/3 cup. While the corresponding nutrient measurements will also increase, the trend towards larger portions and packagings is dangerous. Multiple studies have confirmed that the human brain misjudges the amount of food when it's in a larger container, resulting in a higher consumption.
In the FDA's defense, their task is not a simple one. Americans are diverse in every sense of the word, and the sheer range of ethnic backgrounds, metabolic rates, allergies or intolerances, and everything in between renders it nearly impossible to create a Nutrition Facts label that caters to everyone. Individuals should be in tune with their own metabolism, dietary needs, and calorie requirements in order to achieve their weight loss (or weight gain) goals. The 2,000 calorie diet and all of the calculations and DRVs based off of it are averages and should be seen as such — nothing more and nothing less.
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.