Every food product has a nutrition label and the purpose of this is to help consumers make informed choices about what they are eating. But is it really giving consumers the correct information? The FDA has decided to make changes to the nutrition label, based on data from the National Academy of Medicine, with the aim to improve the health of the nation.
However the real questions are – does this change help consumers, and can they can now make healthier choices?
One major change to the label is an increase in the serving sizes of foods. The FDA has changed serving sizes to make them more relevant to how people actually eat. For example, people will generally consume a whole can of soup in one meal, so under the new guidelines a can of soup will be labelled as one portion rather than two. As the total amount of calories shown is relative to the serving size, the FDA hopes this would highlight to people the actual amount of calories they are consuming.
Their aim is not to allow or encourage people to eat more, but to have the opposite effect. With over 40% of the American population being obese this is a serious issue that needs addressing. However, many critics and some studies, have shown that consumers use the serving size as a guide on how much you should eat. If consumers are using the serving size on the label for portion control, then increasing these may encourage people to eat more if they believe the large portion is acceptable. This could potentially further fortify the obesity crisis and have a negative effect on consumers.
Globally, there has been a shift in the thinking about sugar, and how reducing a population’s sugar intake will help tackle the rise in obesity and type II diabetes. This change is more relevant for government enforced strategies rather than individual awareness, like the sugar tax on soft drinks in the UK.
Previously, the nutrition label displayed the total sugars of a product, in grams and with no percentage daily value. This left it very difficult for consumers to understand how much of the recommended allowance they had consumed. The new label includes added sugar and a percentage daily value. By including added sugars it aims to bring awareness to food with natural sugar, such as fruit, compared to foods with sugar added, like pasta sauce.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that only 10% of people’s calorie intake should come from sugar. A recent study, published in Circulation, concluded that the implementation of the “added sugars” feature to the nutrition label, will help improve people’s health as it could reduce the risk of diabetes of the general population. This could be the biggest and most effective move the FDA could make to help consumes by changing the label. Although we could ask if they have gone far enough – should there also be a percentage daily value for total sugars to really tackle the issue of sugar overconsumption or does more need to be done to educate people about sugar in general?
Vitamin D is mainly absorbed from the sun. As people’s lifestyles have changed and we’re generally spending less time outdoors, this has reduced the level of Vitamin D being absorbed naturally. In fact, figures suggest that the rate of vitamin D deficiency has doubled in the last decade, so encouraging manufacturers to fortify foods with these nutrients would be a good move for consumers. It has been shown across the world that reformulating products to increase or decrease nutrients has the biggest effect on a population’s health.
Following suit with many other countries, the recommended daily dietary fiber intake has been increased from 25g to 28g, highlighting just how important fiber is in the diet. Fiber helps keep the gut healthy and functioning, and now there are many studies looking at the gut and its link to general health, including that of the brain and heart. However there is one catch here – the FDA has reduced the list of compounds which qualify as dietary fiber. Currently many companies are petitioning this, and the list is changing daily. While it is great that the list is not over restrictive, it could cause confusion as consumers adjust to the changes, and it may even discourage people from consuming more fiber if there is mistrust over the constant changes.
Overall, focusing on the nutrients the population is lacking and encouraging an improved intake on these, can only be of benefit. However, we will have to wait and see if the change in serving size has the desired effect. But has the FDA maybe not gone far enough in helping people really understand what is in food and how to become healthy? Many countries now have a colour coded ‘traffic light’ labeling system to help consumers easily understand if a product is healthy overall. This visual guide is often easier for consumers to understand rather than having to read through dietary labels and remember the various thresholds for low, medium, and high. Maybe this should be the FDA’s next step.