Food for Thought: Updating Nutrition Labels
For the first time since the 1990s the Food and Drug Administration is updating the nutrition facts label, which currently reflect serving sizes that may seem too small to many Americans and that place no prominence on the calories of food items.
As you might expect, changing nutrition labels requires lots of research, making it a far from speedy process. According to Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants in Washington, D.C., many groups chime in with opinions prior to changes like this. But two main groups, the Institute of Medicine and the FDA, do the heavy lifting and actually carry out the process.
The Institute of Medicine is the entity that has been tasked with coming up with what is recommended in defining most of the nutrients that Americans consume. “That’s what really forms the basis for what the FDA looks for when coming up with the percentages that you see on the food label,” says Fox.
Because it deals with food, all decisions in the process are important, even choosing recommendations for basic vitamins. Fox affirms that all the information on the nutrition label is heavily researched.
“The IOM uses a very strong, rigorous evidence base—such as peer-reviewed research studies—that they are required to use in their deliberations,” Fox explains.
Fox admits the information on current labels is due for an update, but also says that the goal of nutrition labels has been successful. “The program’s been effective in terms of doing what it’s intended to do, and that is to provide basic information to help consumers make informed choices.”
But some of the information may actually be misleading. For example, serving size is calculated from the amount commonly consumed 20 years ago, which may not be so accurate in an age of super-sizing on one hand and single serve packaging on the other.
“What is considered a serving size? Is it one cookie? Or should it be, more realistically, three or four cookies?” Fox asks. Such points are commonly in need of significant updating, and are the objective of FDA’s proposal for updating food labels.
Fox is hopeful that new labels, in addition to changes to the serving size, will have other modifications, such giving calories more prominence. “Right now it’s just kind of listed along with the other nutrients. It would be good to have that stand out more.”
Other changes could include breaking total sugars to include added sugars and a change in what nutrients are actually listed. Fox also hopes for a new layout that could make it easier for consumers to know what they’re getting. This could include information, on a package of cookies for example, showing the nutrition information for one serving and for the entire package.
“That would really help consumers have a better picture of what they’re consuming,” says Fox.