Are the FDA proposed Nutrition Labels good for your health?

The Good:

  • Adding Vitamin D & Potassium to the label as these nutrients are crucial to health and often not tracked in people’s diets.
  • Require information about “added sugars” which will show whether processed sugar (in any form) has been added to the food above and beyond sugars that naturally occur in the food.
  • Packages will have to show the nutrient information “per serving” and “per package.” (see image) For example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda, typically consumed in a single sitting, would be labeled as one serving rather than as 2.5 servings. I think this makes sense given the label should be based on what people actually eat. What they “should” be eating is another story.

The Bad:

  • If a serving contains less than 0.5 gram of any macronutrient, it still can be labeled as “0 g”. Labels are typically rounded to the nearest integer, which means that any products that contain less than 0.5 g of a nutrient can be stated as “Not a significant source of ‘x’” or simply listed as “0 g”. In general, this is not a big deal, but when the amount of trans fat is less than 0.5 gram per serving, it can be hidden from consumers. Given trans fat consumption should be as low as possible, masking <.5g trans fat from nutrition labels is not doing anyone any favors.
  • While continuing to require “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” on the label, “Calories from Fat” would be removed. True, research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount, and calories from fat is not a very useful metric. However, this is precisely why there needs to be more distinctions between types of fats, specifically monounsaturated, saturated, and omega-6 and 3 fats. A more thorough breakdown of fat types would better help people better balance their Omega 6:3 intake which is important for managing inflamation. 
  • No plan to include genetically engineered (GE) ingredients or genetically modified organisms or (GMO) on the labels. As Dr. Mercola writes, “Knowing whether a food contains GE ingredients may in fact be FAR more important a factor when it comes to making a determination about the product’s wholesomeness than knowing how much vitamin D has been added.” GMO labeling is highly controverial issue too big for this post, but I believe making that info available to consumer is an important step that is not being taken. 
  • No shift on daily values (DV) recommendations other than reducing sodium 100mg (an insignificant change). This means a 2000 calorie diet with 65g fat, 300g carbohydrate, 25g fiber and 50g protein will remain the standard for all adults and children 4+ years age. Does a four year old child and middle-aged man requie the same daily nutrient intake? (more on this below.) Moreover, these daily values do nothing to differentiate between the sources of macronutrients. Is 300g of carbs from pancakes the same as 300g of carbs from squash? Enough said.

Thoughts & Commentary:

Unfortunately, any one-sized-fits all dietary recommendation is doomed from the start. I don’t really see a good way around this from a federal standpoint. If the FDA’s goal is to provide recommendations that prevent gross nutrient deficiencies for the population on average, they’ve done a fair job. However, preventing illness and promoting health are two different paradigms. Can the FDA do more  to nudge people’s eating habits in healthier directions? Is it their reposonsibility? 

People need to be educated on how individual body type, activity patterns and personal history affect their nutrient needs. For example, the nutrient requirements for a 120lb sedentary middle-age woman are going to be very different from a young, athletic 190lb man. This is common sense. Unfortunately, the Daily Values listed on the label do little to help people shift their eating accordingly.

Moreover, having informaiton available is different from using it. What precentage of the population even reads the label? 15% 20% Those looking to see whether there is added sugar already have taken a proactive step to control their health. Yet for the majority of people, the 3Ps–price, preference and packaging (e.g. marketing & branding)–have a FAR GREATER influence on what they buy than does the daily nutrient precentage.  

More importantly, we must ask whether Nutrition Facts labels even matter when the food and regulatory system is so messed up?

In one sense labels still matter because they encourage manufacturers to reformulate existing products to fit a healthier nutrition profile. For instance, the requirement that trans fat be declared on the label made manufacturers significantly decrease the trans fat content of food products (thought there’s still the <.5g loophole).

In another sense, any changes on the manufacturer end is still working withing and from a very distorted sector. After all, we don’t eat nutrients; we eat food. Mandatory nutriention labels still don’t reveal a lot of what makes a food healthy for your body or the environment. Information about how the product is grown, sourced, packaged, and transported is vitally important to the sustainability of our nation’s health. Yet given current regulations, none of this info needs to be revealed to consumers. 

I understand that the Nutrition Facts label is only one tool to help people make informed food choices. Brands can choose to differentiate themselves by voluntarily disclosing where their food comes from, how its grown and so forth. And many products do make sustainable practices part of their brandining. (I will avoid the conversation on ‘greenwashing’ entirely.)

I think one of the greatest shifts of the last decade is that the ‘Organics Movement’ makes people realize that food has a long journey from sunlight to supermarket, and every step along that journey can critically impact the health value of that food. While I don’t want to say Nutrition Facts labels are entirely useless, because they’re not. But until we learn how to get food portions and quality right, focusing all our energy on calories this and daily % that can only bog us down in minutia. 

What I would like to see on the food labels:

  • Food Miles: distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer as well as info about the environmental impact of food production.
  • Info on pesticide use and its affects on the environment, working conditions for farmers, and health hazards for consumers.
  • Mandatory listing of mono- and polyunsaturated fats including Omega 6 and 3 fatty acids.
  • Mandatory listing of all genetically modified/engineered ingredients.
  • Safety warning on packaging materials and chemical additives used to process, store and preserve food products.

Appendix:

The following table lists the current FDA DVs based on a caloric intake of 2,000 calories, for adults and children four or more years of age. Take it for what you will. 

Food Component DV

  • Total Fat 65 grams (g)
  • Saturated Fat 20 g
  • Cholesterol 300 milligrams (mg)
  • Sodium 2,400 mg
  • Potassium 3,500 mg
  • Total Carbohydrate 300 g
  • Dietary Fiber 25 g
  • Protein 50 g
  • Vitamin A 5,000 International Units (IU)
  • Vitamin C60 mg
  • Calcium 1,000 mg
  • Iron 18 mg
  • Vitamin D400 IU
  • Vitamin E30 IU
  • Vitamin K80 micrograms µg
  • Thiamin 1.5 mg
  • Riboflavin 1.7 mg
  • Niacin 20 mg
  • Vitamin B62 mg
  • Folate 400 µg
  • Vitamin B126 µg
  • Biotin 300 µg
  • Pantothenic acid 10 mg
  • Phosphorus 1,000 mg
  • Iodine 150 µg
  • Magnesium 400 mg
  • Zinc 15 mg
  • Selenium 70 µg
  • Copper 2 mg
  • Manganese 2 mg
  • Chromium 120 µg
  • Molybdenum 75 µg
  • Chloride 3,400 mg
Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel, M.Ed, is a personal trainer, health, and wellness life coach, Harvard University mindfulness instructor, and professional speaker.

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