Big changes could soon be coming to grocery stores across the U.S., but for those who don’t pay attention to the black and white nutrition label located on the back of food and beverage packages, the change might not seem very drastic.
Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed giving Nutrition Facts labels a makeover, a change Michelle Obama, an advocate for preventing childhood obesity, says “will make a big difference for families all across this country.” The tweaks are intended to help consumers make more informed decisions about what they put into their bodies. The proposed Nutrition Facts label, if approved, will be the first new look the label has received in over 20 years.
But are the changes enough? Mollie Grow, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said they are a step in the right direction, but there are still areas for improvement.
“It’s a change we’ve needed for a long time,” said Grow. “But more can be done to educate families and make it easier to identify which foods are healthy. Food packaging can still be very deceptive to consumers.”
Is the proposed label a big enough change?
Brian Saelens, PhD, of Seattle Children’s Research Institute, who studies ways to help children and adults be more active and eat better agrees that more could be done.
“It’s the combination of various steps that are the big deal, not any of the single steps,” said Saelens. In December 2012, Saelens studied nutrition-labeling regulation impacts on restaurant environments, which was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
“If this has the result similar to that of restaurant menu labeling, then the effect on calories consumed will be modest, but will contribute to an overall population shift in calories consumed,” said Saelens. “For overall health and obesity prevention, I would continue to encourage children and families to try to prepare foods, eat whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and be active throughout the day.”
Breaking down the proposed food label
At first glance, the label won’t be able to tell a consumer whether the food or beverage is healthy or not, but the label will provide information like calories and serving size in a more accurate way. According to the FDA, the proposed changes would include the following information:
- Greater understanding of nutrition science
- Updated serving size requirements and new labeling requirements for certain package sizes
- Refreshed design
The proposed food label would also require more information about the amount of added sugar a product contains, as well as information about other nutrients, like sodium and vitamin D.
“I love that the proposed new label requires information about added sugars, but it still seems kind of lost in the list,” said Grow. “Many individuals often get confused about foods labeled non-fat, or organic, which can be very deceiving. Many individuals don’t realize that some non-fat yogurts contain the same amount of sugar as some sodas.”
Updated serving size requirements and new labeling requirements for certain package sizes
Another significant change will involve serving size requirements. The current label, which reflects serving sizes established more than 20 years ago, is out of date and doesn’t properly reflect eating habits of consumers today. Serving sizes, under the proposed design, would be more realistic.
The new label will also make packaged foods and beverages that are typically consumed in one sitting include the calorie count of the entire package. For example, a 20 ounce bottle of soda would include the calorie count for the entire bottle.
Lastly, the new label will require “dual column” labels for certain packages, which would include both “per serving” and “per package” calories and nutrition facts.
“I think that we are likely to see a few things as a result of this updated labeling: smaller portions provided in ‘single-serve’ containers, as the food industry will not be as likely to label something as having a large amount of calories that is targeted to be eaten as a snack for one person, and hopefully more new alternative options that have fewer calories and less sugar,” said Saelens.
The proposed label more clearly emphasizes calories and serving sizes.
“It’s easy to be deceived by labels,” said Grow. “The new label will help consumers understand what they are consuming. I like that the calories and serving sizes are quite obvious and bold in the proposed label.”
With so many different food and beverage options and variations, it can be hard for parents and kids to determine what’s healthy. Many packages entice consumers with bright colors, cartoons and deceptive words, like “all-natural.” It’s important for individuals to take a closer look at what’s in the foods and drinks they consume. Making information easier to read can help.
“The proposed labels will help reinforce information about specific foods,” said Grow. “But it’s important for parents to teach children about food labels. Help make kids part of the decision when it comes to buying foods,” said Grow. “People feel empowered by knowledge. If we help kids understand food labels, they will be more likely to use the information they’ve learned when deciding between foods in the future.”
Picking healthy foods
Whether it’s the proposed food label or the current food label, there are some things people should think about before placing a food item in the grocery basket. Here are just a few tips from Grow:
- Even if a food is labeled as low fat, the food might not be low in calories or high in nutritional value.
- Avoid foods that contain high amounts of sodium. Too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure. Processed foods tend to contain greater amounts of sodium.
- Packaged snack foods and candy often contain high amounts of added sugars. Consume these food products sparingly.
- Instead of sugary sodas, pick healthy alternatives like milk. Instead of chips, reach for vegetables and fruits.
- Incorporate variety into the grocery basket – lean meats, whole-grains, vegetables and fruits.
- Be aware of portion size.
- Proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label
- Feeding Your Family
- MyPlate nutrition and portion size tips
If you’d like to arrange an interview with Dr. Saelens or Dr. Grow please contact Seattle Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or [email protected].