With the recent report that the FDA would be redesigning the Nutrition Facts labels found on all processed foods in the US, it got me thinking – What would I like to see on the new updated labels?
First, let’s begin with some of the problems with the existing labels:
1. Serving sizes are not reflective of what people are eating.
For me personally, this is one of the biggest issues I’ve encountered as a dietitian. I hate how soft drink companies are able to get away with listing the nutrition information for a 600 ml bottle of pop based on a “serving size” of only 240 ml (or 8 oz). When the average consumer looks at a Coke nutrition label, they’re not identifying that there’s actually 2.5 servings in their 600 ml bottle and thus if they plan to drink the entire bottle (which almost everyone does), they need to multiply all the quantities/percentages found on the label by 2.5. It’s not just soft drinks either. Chips, cookies, cereal and crackers are just a few of the other culprits when it comes to this sort of thing. This practice is clearly misleading and contributes to the public’s confusion regarding the calorie content of certain foods. If this recent NY Daily News article is true, fortunately this is one of the changes currently being considered.
2. % Daily Value is too generic
While I understand the purpose of including a % Daily Value on the label (ie. to give the public a sense on how much of a particular nutrient is contained in each serving relative to their daily requirements), unfortunately it oversimplifies a rather complex issue. Individual daily requirements, particularly caloric daily requirements, can vary tremendously among individuals. The % Daily Value is calculated based on a 2000 calorie/day diet. Adult caloric requirements can range from 1500 calories/day to 3500 calories/day (and beyond) depending on gender and age. The % Daily Value found on nutrition labels is of little value to the active 185 lbs, 25 year old healthy male OR the sedentary 110 lbs elderly female. So if the % Daily Value is only applicable to only a portion of the population, it begs the question, why is it even there in the first place?
3. Trans fats
This is another pet peeve of mine. Consumption of trans fats has been strongly linked to increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease by increasing cholesterol levels. Unfortunately at present, in Canada trans fats have not been eliminated from our food system (and as far as I’m aware ditto for the US), but that’s an issue for another post. Anyways, trans fats are listed on the nutrition label of all foods, which is a good thing, but the problem is that it’s possible for trans fats to be present within a food yet not show up on the nutrition facts label. This is because if the trans fats are in small enough amounts (ie. less than 0.5 grams), the total amount will be rounded down and will show up on the label as 0 grams. In fact, the only way to know for certain if trans fats are present within a food is to look at the ingredients list and determine is anything listed has the word “hydrogenated” in it. In my opinion if they’re going to be listed on the label, the public should be properly informed about their exact quantities.
4. TMI (Too much information)
More information is not always better. While it’s been demonstrated that the public is generally able to use nutrition labels to evaluate basic nutrition information, they struggle when they are asked more complex questions. Not surprisingly, people in lower socio-economic groups tend to have the poorest understanding of the information presented on nutrition labels, which is unfortunate as this is a group that often stands to benefit the most from such information. Researchers have also found that when asked consumers regularly request a simpler more straightforward presentation of nutrition information.
So what I’d like to see…
Now that we’ve got my issues with existing nutrition labels out of the way, I think you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what I’d like to see going forward. For starters, I think the information presented on labels has to be simplified significantly. While RDs like myself (and other educated folks) tend to appreciate the plethora of information contained on nutrition labels, the fact of the matter is that most people don’t fully understand or misinterpret at least some of the information on nutrition labels. Rather than catering to a few select groups, it probably makes sense to cater towards the majority in this instance. What could be neat is to have additional information easily accessible for those who want it (perhaps via a QR code?).
In keeping with a more simplistic presentation, I think that % Daily Values should probably just be done away with in favour of a simpler way of indicating if a food is high or low in a certain nutrient. I obviously think that more accurate portion sizes should be used and if a container/package contains more than one serving, it should be mandatory to indicate how many total servings are found in that food.
In fact, I very much like this example of nutrition labeling that I found online. I believe it is used in the UK. It still lists percentages, which I’m assuming are based on the same 2000 calorie/day diet used for calculating % Daily Value and I’m not exactly sure what the criteria they use for the LOW-MED-HIGH contents, but this seems like a much more straightforward presentation than we have now.
Whatever the new labels end up looking like, I commend the people tasked with coming up with the new format. It’s by no means an easy job and one of those things that will be criticized no matter what the redesign look like. I’ll be pretty happy if they can sneak in just one or two of my recommendations!
Is there anything that confuses you about the existing nutrition labels? Are there any changes you’d like to see implemented on the new label?….
Campos S, Doxey J, Hammond D. Nutrition labels on pre-packaged foods: a systematic review. Public Health Nutr. 2011 Aug;14(8):1496-506