Recognizing National Nutrition Month with Label Talk

March 4, 2014 in Foodland Chronicles, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

It’s almost as though the FDA was looking to do something significant for National Nutrition Month – which is in March each year. On Thursday, February 27, 2014 the FDA released a press announcement about the proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label. You can see the proposed format in the preceding link. Note the size of calories. That change along with the newly proposed change on serving size may truly help consumers. This is the first revision of the nutrition labels in twenty years, with the exception of the 2006 ruling on the inclusion of trans fats on the label.

The goal of more realistic portion/serving sizes to be revised on the new label has been sought after for a long time. Actually, I’ve heard more than one comedian make jokes about serving sizes during their comedy acts. It’s a joke to think that most consumers are sharing a 20-ounce soda pop. Presently the 20-ounce soda is listed as 2 ½ servings.

Currently many single serving packages/containers list multiple servings so the calorie count appears lower. If you want a good laugh, just look at the number of servings on candy bar wrappers, chip packages and; well, just about any snack food.

I’ve thought for a long time that the common half cup of ice cream would be a shock to many who just glance at the calories on the label and assume that they are having one serving. In reality, a half-cup is often offered as the kid’s serving at an ice cream shop. The new label will require ice creams to list a full cup and, of course, the calories will reflect the full cup. Seeing 580 calories per serving (one cup) on the package of Haagen Dazs pistachio ice cream; 540 calories for a serving of Baskin-Robbins Pralines ‘n Cream; or 600 for Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey could potentially slow someone’s appetite.

The FDA has proposed ‘added sugar’ to help distinguish it from sugar that is found naturally in food. An example of this issue is chocolate milk or other milk drinks. There is lactose (milk sugar) naturally in milk, but the food processors add sugar to some milk and the FDA is trying to force the food industry to disclose the added sugar. There is a problem though. The FDA does not require an amount for Daily Value (DV) – so the consumer may notice added sugar but not be familiar with the standards adopted by the American Heart Association. That is the suggested limit for simple sugar intake is 100 calories (for women) to 150 calories (for men) per day. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) a nutrition consumer advocacy group said that the grams should be set at about six teaspoons (which is about 100 calories). In general, if the FDA could give some kind of guidance in the form of a DV it would help the consumer move away from the 23 teaspoons the average American presently consumes each day – about 4 times more than the recommended amount.

Also, the FDA is only proposing to lower the DV for sodium from 2400 to 2300 mg – a pitiful 4.2%. The CSPI was hoping for 1500 mg, which the American Heart Association has also recommended – a substantial 37.5% reduction. This is a disappointment for those advocates of heart health, healthy blood pressure and kidney health.

One of my favorite proposals for the new nutrition label is that the FDA has proposed to exclude purified, processed fibers such as maltodextrin and inulin from nutrition facts labels; they say this type of fiber is not as beneficial as the intact, unprocessed fiber found in whole foods. I can hear the food processors grumbling now. I do hope the FDA will prevail. It is distressing to see the labels of highly processed ingredients touting their fiber content, when all it is, is a load of added processed fiber like inulin.

The announcements have gone out through all main news channels. First lady Michelle Obama will actually unveil the proposal next Thursday.  Noted writers Burton and Gasparro reported that Mrs. Obama said that consumers should be able to “pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for our family.” Many of us would agree with that sentiment, but I’m afraid that Mrs. Obama is not really familiar with some of the deceptive practices of Big Food. For example, using highly processed flours and loading it up with inulin and a minimum of vitamins and minerals (an inexpensive addition, just enough to sound good), and then touting on the label how many grams of fiber and how much omega 3, vitamin D or whatever popular nutrient they’ve dumped into the product. (The all-too-common practice of the food industry is obviously one of my pet peeves.)

Burton and Gasparro also correctly point out that the FDA proposal does not emphasize when added sugars or saturated fat are relatively high in a food – like using colorful type. Nor will they disclose the percentage of grains in a product that are healthful whole grains. Too bad, that advice was ignored. The public could have really benefited from some sort of flag for these hazardous nutritional concerns.

The food industry and consumer groups have 90 days to comment on the FDA’s proposal; and it won’t take effect for at least two years. So don’t look for these changes very soon.

The food industry is already beginning to pitch their arguments. They threaten backlash if the new label takes up more room on food packages and they will be resistant to a larger area for the nutrition label.

Of course, there’s already talk about the food industry’s backlash to the FDA’s proposal. One report is that if they have to list a whole bag of chips or a bottle of soda as one serving, they would reduce the size. They say that food in smaller packages is ultimately more expensive per ounce. Of course that is true. It was a marketing breakthrough to supersize and get more profit (and calories!) into every package. But I say win-win to push back on this for-profit exploitation of consumers trying to get the most for their money at the expense of health.  Maybe if chips and soda are too expensive the consumer will buy only the smaller package, actually consuming less of the undesirable products like soda and chips. Or in my dream world, the consumer will turn to some other food that offers both better economical and nutritional value.

If you don’t want to hold your breath waiting until the FDA and Big Food get the labels all sorted. If you don’t want to wait out their two-year lead-time. If you can see even now that what label compromises the FDA will make with Big Food will fall far short of the labels meeting Michelle Obama’s simple ideal of telling what’s healthy for your family.  If you can see ahead this far, why not begin to enjoy the yumminess of eating real nutritionally packed food now? Consider turning now to really healthy foods that are not highly processed. (Processed foods are the foods that have to have the nutritional label.) Consider including foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat or fat-free dairy, beans, nuts and seeds. Consider cutting down or cutting out soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and bars, sugary milk, processed meats (bacon, ham, sausage), fatty meats, regular cheese, cakes, cookies, and ice creams. If like me, you don’t want to have forbidden foods, allow yourself to have small amounts occasionally. Remember Good Health Can Be Yummy. National Nutrition Month can be every month not just the month of March; but it’s a great time to get started in designing a new healthier style of eating.