Government. Industry. You.
If you’ve ever found yourself staring at the Nutrition Facts Label on the back of your cereal box in the mornings, you may have noticed that there are some new additions and deletions that have started to appear. The FDA officially announced these changes on May 20, 2016, but manufacturers have until 2018 at the earliest to comply.
The previous Nutrition Facts Label is over 20 years old, and the new version is intended to encompass “updated scientific information, new nutrition and public health research, more dietary recommendations from expert groups, and input from the public.” While the label will still be generally recognisable, it has some key changes that will affect industry and consumers alike.
What are the Most Important Differences?
Updated Serving Sizes:
By law, the serving size on the Nutrition Facts Labels are required to be accurate reflections of public consumption. In other words, it is illegal for food manufacturers to sell a bag of chips with one chip as the serving size — it would be misleading and allow for false “low calorie” marketing schemes.
From a nutrition standpoint, this means that the Nutrition Facts Labels must display the serving size that people actually consume, not what they should consume. This nuance will have particularly large impacts on junk food (also known as “discretionary” food) items. The serving size has increased from ½ cup to ⅔ cup for ice cream, from ⅓ of a muffin to an entire muffin, and from 8 ounces to an entire bottle of soda.
The FDA is now also requiring that food items in larger packages that may be consumed in one sitting display nutrition information per serving and per package. Before, an individual would have to mentally multiply the values by the number of servings if he or she wanted to eat the entire container worth of chips — now, that critical information barrier has been removed.
The fact that this category made it onto the new label can be considered a huge public health victory for the United States. Its presence is contentious and was fiercely contested by industry lobbyists, simply because the amount of sugar added to processed foods in this country almost always overshoots any reasonable limit.
Added sugars are considered “empty calories” — they provide energy, but do so without any other nutritional benefits. Consuming large amounts of empty calories makes it difficult to obtain proper vitamins, minerals, and macronutrient ratios without overshooting the appropriate daily calorie intake.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends that no more than 10% of daily energy comes from added sugar, which translates to a Daily Recommended Value of 50 grams per day. One margarita has a whopping 60 grams of added sugar, and some yogurts can have up to 30 grams. This article from Bicycling.com showcases some hidden sources of added sugar, but the mandatory disclosure provision will likely exert public pressure on industry to lower its use in many foods.
Vitamin D and Potassium:
Most people do not pay attention to the nutrient breakdown on the Nutrition Facts Labels, but its existence actually reflects the health of the American population. For example, up until recently both Vitamin A and Vitamin C content were required. Nowadays, deficiencies in either of these vitamins are rare, so the FDA no longer finds it imperative that they be disclosed on every food label (although manufacturers can still list them voluntarily).
The new label will reflect current population-level deficiencies — namely Vitamin D and potassium. Vitamin D can be found in foods like tuna, salmon, cheese, egg yolks, and fortified dairy products. Potassium can be found in sweet potatoes, squash, white beans, yogurt, and cantaloupe.
What are the Controversies?
New Compliance Date:
On September 29, 2017, the FDA announced a proposal to push back the industry compliance date to adhere to the Nutrition Facts Label Ruling. The original date was July 26, 2018, but the proposed switch would grant companies with more than $10 million in annual food sales until January 1, 2020 to comply. For companies that make less than $10 million each year (which is 90% of the market), the rules would not come into effect until January 1, 2021.
Industry is largely in favour of this proposal, since it grants them a significant amount of extra time to adapt their labels and re-formulate their products if they deem it necessary. However, anti-obesity advocates and public health experts view this as a setback — some argue that the FDA has given in to industry pressure and is giving preferential treatment to the private sector at the expense of the public’s well-being.
If you’ve read my recent article on trans fats, you’ll know that all partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are banned from the US food supply by 2018. Despite this, the trans fat section is still mandated on the new Nutrition Facts Label. Small amounts of trans fats are found naturally in dairy and other products of ruminant animals (like goats), and the FDA feels that this is reason enough to continue mandatory disclosure. Furthermore, a provision in the original ruling allows for companies to petition the FDA for permission to use PHOs in their food — a loophole that could potentially allow dangerously high levels of trans fats to re-enter the market.
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.