Saturday, May 21, 2016

New Nutrition Facts Labels

There are some head-scratchers in the new FDA Nutrition Facts labels. In some ways the new rules are a step backward. Particularly useless is the requirement for labeling of vitamin D content. Vitamin D does not occur naturally in significant quantities in food and consumers are better off obtaining it from chemical supplements than from food. The fact that some food already contains chemical vitamin D in small amounts is not particularly useful, nor is it useful information. But we will be stuck ignoring the vitamin D line in the Nutrition Facts label for the next generation or so until the rules change again.

The most useful adjustments to the Nutrition Facts label this time around have to do with serving sizes and package sizes. Serving sizes will be more accurate, and key information will be provided for the food package as a whole. Since the 1990s diet experts have been advising consumers to compute food energy for an entire package as the most important nutrition fact about a processed food purchase. If you buy a box of cookies and calculate that its total food energy is 2,700 calories, then after you’ve eaten the whole box, you know how much food energy you’ve eaten (in this example, more than enough to add a pound of body fat). With the new labels you won’t have to do that computation because you can read it from the label.

We know from history that the Nutrition Facts label changes consumer behavior. The granola bar category was decimated when calories from fat was added to the label years ago. Adding trans fats to the label led much of the processed-food sector to phase out trans fats, a change that might very well be the biggest public health event since the majority of adults gave up cigarettes. The new requirement that food labels show grams of added sugar will surely result in food that is not so ridiculously sweet. That in turn will give food manufacturers an incentive to create cleaner food, since they can no longer cover the flavor of contaminants with added sugar without directly disclosing the added sugar.