Check Out These Hot New Nutrition Facts

Today the Obama administration proposed the first change to U.S. food Nutrition Fact labels in almost a decade. A closer look at the numbers and the importance of subtle changes.
FDA

“To remain relevant," U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said in a press statement today, "the FDA’s newly proposed Nutrition Facts label incorporates the latest in nutrition science as more has been learned about the connection between what we eat and the development of serious chronic diseases impacting millions of Americans.”

Like so many of us, the FDA just wants to remain relevant. This week is the fourth anniversary of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign, and with it comes today's unveiling of new food nutrition label proposals. The Nutrition Facts required on food packages for 20 years haven't changed significantly since 2006, when trans fat was added to the label.

At a glance, the new one is not much different. Apart from that giant calorie number.

In addition to making people feel things on the guilt-empowerment spectrum, the giant number will be more accurate than the current regular-sized number, the FDA says. That's because the FDA will force manufacturers to reconsider "serving size" based on the size of the container. So a 12-ounce can of soda will be one serving, but so will a 20-ounce bottle of soda. Because not many people buy a 20-ounce soda with the intention of drinking 12 ounces now and 8 at a later date. "What and how much people eat and drink has changed since the serving sizes were first put in place in 1994," the FDA press statement said. "By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what people 'should' be eating."

Although, doesn't that sort of condone eating more? If a whole container of ice cream is just one serving, I'll eat the whole thing because, hey, one serving. Even if that serving size was actually a reaction to me eating too much ice cream in the first place. Anyway. Whatever size package the FDA deems "could be consumed in one sitting," that will be the serving size.

Large packages will retain the current “per serving” and “per package” two-column system. In either case, at least it means less math. To remain relevant, do not ask hungry people to do math.

The most radical change is the new “added sugars” line. Every day more fingers are pointing at added sugars as drivers of the obesity and diabetes epidemics. The number of people diagnosed with diabetes in the U.S. has nearly tripled in the last twenty years, according to the CDC.

It's worth being aware of added sugars for your own diet, but equally relevant is the hope that being called out on the label will make manufacturers less likely to add said sugar in the first place. When the 2006 trans-fat requirement went into place, if that's any indication, foods suddenly started containing less partially hydrogenated oil, the primary source of trans fat.

The "calories from fat" line will also be removed, because that no longer makes sense in our current understanding of fat. Some fat is good, and some is bad, and it's not helpful to lump it all together. Just this week a study said that eating good unsaturated fats actually prevents accumulation of intra-abdominal body fat. That is the most dangerous place to have excess body fat.

Less important is the vitamin section. Potassium and vitamin D now have to be included, because those are good for blood pressure and bones, respectively. But you can get sick from having too much of either, so it's a little strange to think of them as categorically good. Vitamins A and C are no longer required in the proposed label. Vitamin C doesn't prevent or cure colds, we now know, so as long as you've got enough in your diet that you don't get scurvy, there's no need to worry about C. Unless you want to.

All of this does matter, since people do actually read the Nutrition Facts label, according to FDA’s Health and Diet Surveys. The number of people who “often” read it the first time they buy food increased from 44 percent in 2002 to 54 percent in 2008. That doesn't mean it influenced them, though, or that we wouldn't benefit from some additional simplistic interpretive labeling like the European stop light system—where a food label is green, yellow, or red to give consumers a general idea of the product's health without getting into all of these numbers. That system has been shown to influence consumers.

A final rule on the proposed changes could take another year, after which FDA would give the food industry two years to make the changes.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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