This week, the FDA proposed some big changes to food labels (aka the Nutrition Facts label). Some of the changes include:
- Requiring information about the amount of added sugar, not just total sugar.
- Putting the calorie content in larger print.
- Revising servings sizes on some products to better reflect the amount people actually eat.
- Removing (or not requiring) information such as “Calories from Fat”, and Daily Values for vitamins A and C.
I posted about this on my Real Mom Nutrition Facebook page and have been following discussions on other pages as well. There’s an argument I keep hearing: It doesn’t matter what the label says. We should be eating fresh, whole foods, the kinds that don’t even have a label, not packaged foods.
I agree with part of this argument: I believe that a diet of largely whole, fresh foods is best. It’s one I strive for myself when feeding my own family. It’s something I think about every single week when I wheel my cart through the aisles of the grocery store. And it’s one I wrestle with when I’m looking at the packaged tortillas, wishing I had time to make a batch of my own, but knowing full well that I do not.
It’s simply not realistic to say that everyone should stop buying packaged foods. Even people (like me) who make a lot of their own food still rely on packaged staples like cereal and crackers. And guess what? That’s okay.
So how can we say that the label doesn’t matter? How can we say that since people should ideally eat a mostly whole-foods diet, we shouldn’t work to improve the existing label and give people better tools to make decisions about food?
Here’s how I think the new changes can help:
- Calories matter. Yes, diet quality trumps calories. But it’s valuable information that a bran muffin at the natural market contains 650 calories. Too many healthy bran muffins will lead to weight gain, no matter how much whole wheat flour and flaxseed they contain.
- Serving sizes matter. When I do education about label reading, people are always shocked at the serving sizes. They’re shocked that the information on the carton of ice cream is based on a half-cup scoop and that their bottle of sweet tea is actually 2.5 servings. Putting the numbers in line with what people actually eat or drink arms them with more accurate data.
- Sugar matters. Manufacturers are dumping added sugar into so many products. Deciphering the ingredient lists for those sugar aliases can be tough (and time consuming). By adding “added sugar” to the label, people know right away how much sugar in the yogurt is added versus natural. They’ll know that Wheat Thins contain added sugar while Triscuits do not. They’ll know which jarred pasta sauces are super-sweetened. When comparing products across a category, that’s gold.
Are the new labels perfect? Of course they’re not. Here’s what I’d love to see:
- A clearer explanation of what the numbers mean. That large, bolded “650 Calories” on the bran muffin? Not very useful unless I know the ballpark calorie figure I’m aiming for everyday (yes, there’s a box at the bottom of the food label that spells this out but that information should be more prominent and more clearly conveyed). Few consumers I talk to understand how to interpret Daily Values. And wouldn’t it be nice if added sugar was translated into teaspoons so you knew that there were three teaspoons of added sugar in the packet of instant oatmeal?
- A more readable ingredient list that spells out which ingredients are artificial sweeteners or preservatives, for instance. I like this idea from the Center for Science in the Public Interest for simplifying the list.
- Some kind of rating system a la the NuVal system or the Fooducate grades.
What do YOU think about the proposed changes? And what would you like to see on labels?