Foodie News: FDA Promises Update to Nutrition Labels
Studies suggest that college-aged people are one of the most nutritionally-informed groups of American consumers, and soon they may have more information to consider when they look at the labels. The FDA has said that they are working on a new labeling system to replace the system created more than two decades ago. The exact changes have not been announced, but the agency has mentioned a need to reflect changes in overall nutritional science.
The biggest shortcoming on nutrition labels, according to many nutritionists, is the arbitrary serving sizes. While beverages are required to be counted in standardized ‘cup’ servings, no similar standard exists for the majority of foods, which can make comparing similar products difficult. For instance, if one compares low fat cottage cheese and low fat Greek Yogurt, they often find that cottage cheese is listed in half-cup servings, and Greek Yogurt in cup servings, despite the fact that half a cup of cottage cheese and half a cup of yogurt are roughly equivalent nutritionally. The USDA Nutrition Database, FDA, and most countries in the world, utilize a simple metric weight-based system where foods are considered in units of 100g. This system has its downsides as well as its upsides. Because it is based on weight, it can be difficult for American households who use volumetric measurements. However, advocates of the system, including many food writers and professional bakers, note that reliance on volumetric measurements can drastically effect cooking as well as the nutritional facts of recipes. Bakers in particular note that differences between seemingly identical volume-based quantities of flour can dramatically affect the consistency of baked goods, as packed flour can be more than 1.5 times as heavy as loose flour. Similarly, weight-based measures are very effective for produce because of the irregular shape and arbitrariness of typical designations such as “medium.”
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Another side in the debate over serving sizes, chiefly represented by nutritionists working with consumers, suggests a volumetric standard wherein the serving size is represented in teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups, which most Americans have ready access to measuring tools for. This system is similar to that used by many American cookbooks. However, some food writers and nutritionists argue that turning to a volumetric standard instead of a by-weight standard would fail to address the issue of fluctuations such as that with the flour. Nutritionists cite the problem with flour as an example of ways in which even conscious consumers could be taking in additional calories.
The USDA’s Michael Taylor says that a major focus of the agency is providing detailed information for consumers attempting to follow the latest recommendations from nutritionists, including de-emphasizing fats and distinguishing saturated and unsaturated fats on the label. Many health food companies already voluntarily distinguish these fats, but a universal standard requirement would help lower-income consumers identify healthier options within their means. Nutrition advocates would also like to see a distinction made between natural and added sugars, which often impact consumers’ choices of dairy and tomato products. However this would be a difficult standard to adopt because of nebulous regulations regarding the definition of “added” sugar. Another major distinction that could be made is between insoluble and soluble fiber, which manufacturers can voluntary distinguish on their labels. Soluble fiber has been shown to help lower cholesterol, while insoluble fiber, which passes through the system without being digested, is beneficial to colonic health. Many manufacturers add insoluble fiber to products to increase the amount of fiber they can report on the label, though much of the recommendation to increase fiber intake focuses on consumption of a balance of soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Consumers may not be getting the full benefit of a fiber-rich diet if they choose fortified products with only insoluble fiber.
Other recommendations from the field include labels that list the percentage by weight of the constituent products. This system, already existent in countries like Australia, would help consumers identify the quantity of ingredients such as whole grain or white flour, oils, sugar, added fiber, or partially hydrogenated fats. At the very least, many nutritionists say that loopholes in the system make choosing the best product difficult, because manufacturers can add small amounts of whole grains and apply the “Whole Grain” appellation. Because whole grain products possess mostly the same nutritional content as white flour products, a quick look at a product may not give a consumer necessary information to find the best option. Nutritionists say conscious consumers should look for a 100% Whole Grain label.
The announcement also provides the FDA an opportunity to realize changes to the structure and position of nutrition labels which nutrition advocates favor in improving consumer consciousness. Behavioral studies suggest that having nutritional information on the front of packaging significantly increases consumer awareness of the product’s nutritional content. Some manufacturers, such as General Mills, voluntarily provide front-panel labeling, but up to this point the FDA has left it up to the industries to create front panel nutritional labels. Some advocates would also like the formatting of the size ‘box’ nutrition label to change. The UC Berkeley School of Journalism held a contest called “Rethink the Food Label” which challenged designers to redesign the space. The winning entry by Renee Walker chiefly addressed concerns about visualization of the quantities described in the nutritional information, both with colored boxes to represent the proportion of ingredients and with a visual aid to the serving sizes, generally volumetric. The second-place entry by Joey Brunelle removed the serving size altogether, while the third-place entry by Bradley Mu used colored text and visual elements to identify organic and industrial products, daily values, and allergen concerns. Major focuses of many of the labels were questions like “How healthy is this product?” and the origins and GMO status of the ingredients. The former question is particularly controversial in the field of nutrition because of its highly subjective nature. It remains to be seen whether the work of these designers will be reflected in the new labels.
All in all, the new nutrition labels are an opportunity for a new generation of nutritionally conscious consumers to express to manufacturers and health officials their concerns and preferences. Hopefully the final product will be an objective improvement over the current version, both for casual consumers and the highly health conscious.
Cover Image Source: New York Daily News