Diets Public Health

Nutrition Labels Are Changing

            The format of Government regulated nutrition labels has evolved over the years and is ready to change again.  As you might expect, getting agreement from all interested parties (scientist, consumers, farmers, food manufacturers, etc.) has required tradeoffs.  In the politics of nutrition, decisions in favor of science over industry profits gained a little this time around.

            Complicating the design of nutrition labels has been the need to provide helpful information without expecting the consumer to have a degree in biochemistry.  Also complicating the design of labels is the diverse range of needs that people with special dietary issues may have.  As you might expect, creating a uniform and easily understood nutrition label that can fit on a wide range of package sizes involves quite a few tradeoffs.

            Many food companies have already adapted their labels to meet the new requirements.  By January 2021 most packaged food are required to comply.  Eventually, the new label will be on all packaged foods.

            Although the Government updates nutrition guidance once each five years, some of the recent changes have been long in coming due to vested interests that opposed them.  Fortunately, you can’t keep good science down forever.  While the new recommendations are not the ideal recommendations for addressing America’s epidemic of weight gain and chronic diseases, they are an improvement.

            The goal of the new label is to help people better respond to the link between diet and chronic diseases, especially weight gain and heart disease.  For the goal to be achieved, consumers will have to discover the connection between food and disease through education and then use the new information on food labels to make better choices.  Before significant change happens, expect a lengthy process given the time it may take for the education system to respond by rewriting textbooks, train teachers, and for students to become consumers.  To be expected, of course, the food industry will at the same time attempt to maintain profits by promoting ever more tempting foods along with their version of healthy nutrition.

            In general, the iconic look of the nutrition label remains essentially the same.  Changes include some reorganization of information, more emphasis for some information, and some added information.  Perhaps the most noticeable change is the larger type size for calories per serving and serving size.  Other important changes include:

  • A requirement to display the percent Daily Value of vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet.
  • Added sugars must be shown in grams and as a percent of Daily Value.  The goal is to encourage people to keep calories from sugar at no more than10 percent of total daily calories.  Of course, selecting foods without added sugar would be the best recommendation.
  • Vitamins A and C will no longer be required on the label but may be included on a voluntary basis.  As you might guess, a diagnosis of a vitamin C deficiency or a Vitamin A deficiency is rare, so why clutter the label.
  • While continuing to require total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat on the label, calories from fat are being removed.  This is unfortunate since knowing the percentage of calories from fat is helpful for weight loss, overcoming insulin resistance, and more.  Fortunately, the percentage of calories from fat can be calculated by dividing the calories from fat (9 calories per gram) by the total calories per serving. For example, a food with 360 total calories per serving and 4 grams of fat, the percentage of calories from fat would be (4 x 9) / 360) or 10 percent.
  • The Daily Values for sodium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D have been updated based on more recent scientific evidence.
  • Serving sizes have been updated to reflect what people are actually eating, not what they should be eating. How much people eat and drink has changed over the years.  For example, the serving size for ice cream was previously 1/2 cup but will change to 2/3 cup.  The serving size for soft drinks will increase from 8 ounces to 12 ounces.
  • In the face of reality, packages that are between one and two servings, such as a 20-ounce soda or a 15-ounce can of soup will be labeled as one serving because people typically consume it all in one sitting.
  • Some products that are larger than a single serving are also often consumed in one sitting.  For these products, two labels will be required to indicate the number of calories and nutrients on both a per serving and per-package basis. For example, a 24-ounce bottle of soda or a pint of ice cream will have two nutrition labels.

            Of course, plant-based whole foods don’t need a nutrition label.  It’s when foods are processed that concern for nutritional value becomes an issue.  Still, in a world where many rarely get adequate sunshine on their skin and where healthy bacteria is all but eliminated, some will still need vitamin D and vitamin B12 supplements.  For certain health needs, some may require additional supplements despite their excellent diet.

            Nutrition labeling is an evolving process, and the new nutrition labels will not be the last one.  As the science of nutrition advances and the health needs of the country change, modifications will be needed.  For a history of how nutrition labels have evolved over the last 70 years read “Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Phase I Report.”  As you will discover, the new nutrition labels are not perfect; however, they do represent a small improvement.

            Nancy Neighbors, MD

The Five Year Nutrition Update

            By law, every five years, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services issues new dietary guidelines for Americans. To make these decision, an advisory committee of 15-20 people recognized in the field of nutrition evaluates information from research, the public, and industry.  As you might expect, politics plays a part in the process, and many questions about nutrition go unanswered due to lack of government funding for nutrition.  In contrast, the food industry is well funded for studies that often make little difference but very effectively fill the headlines with information that draws attention to their products in disingenuous ways.

            With 18% of federal dollars being spent on health care and nutrition being the root cause for most of the cost, it’s time to recognize that nutrition research to guide public nutrition policy must become a priority.  This is a bipartisan issue that all candidates need to be talking about.

Oops, I missed the premiere showing

of ‘The Game Changers’

            After October 1, 2019, the movie will be available to pre-order on iTunes. To order use the link  The Game Changers on iTunes.

            If you missed the movie and just want the facts without the drama, cardiologist, Dr. Steve Lome, made a YouTube video in anticipation of possible naysayers. Click the link that follows to view his video The Game Changers Debunked? A lifestyle medicine cardiologist’s review!

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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