The one big problem with the proposed nutrition-label changes

544167B4664E1768E8DAEB8B239E4C_h295_w300_m2_bblack_q99_p99_cqbFGvCvbA few weeks ago, First Lady Michelle Obama, head of the Let’s Move campaign, and FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg announced proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts panels that adorn the labels of packaged foods. You know, the ones that tell you a 20-ounce bottle of Coke Classic contains close to twice as much sugar as a Three Musketeers bar.

The new changes include:

–Distinguishing the number of grams of added sugars from naturally occurring sugars.
–Updating serving-size amounts to more accurately reflect current (read: usually larger) serving sizes compared to 20 years ago (like upping a serving of ice cream from a paltry quarter cup to a cup).
–Making the calories and servings-per-container lines bigger and bolder.
–Dropping calories from fat to reflect the latest nutrition science that shows that the types of fat we consume is more important than the total amount.
–Revising the overall recommended daily intake—and thus the percent daily value listed on the label—for key nutrients like sodium, fiber, and vitamin D.

It’s been a long time coming: The info on these labels hasn’t changed since 2006, when a line for trans fat was added, and the last major update took place in the early 1990s. Given the fact that more than a third of American adults are obese, anything aimed at improving the nation’s eating habits—and by extension Americans’ overall health—is worthy of our attention. But there’s still one glaring issue with the new label.

“The problem is how can you tell if any given product has too much sugar? We still don’t have a dietary reference intake (DRI) for sugar to tell us how much is too much—the percent daily value on the label is still missing,” says Robert Lustig, M.D., a University of California San Francisco endocrinologist and obesity researcher, the author of the 2012 New York Times best seller Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, and the doctor whose 2009 talk “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has more than 4 million views on YouTube.

Lustig pointed out that the American Heart Association recommends that added sugar make up 8 percent of a person’s total calories, while the World Health Organization recommends a 5 percent threshold. Currently, added sugars account for an average of 18 percent of Americans’ total calories. “Until we have a DRI for added sugars, the information won’t mean much to most people,” Lustig says.

Other than that, experts seem to like the changes. The day of the announcement, author, nutrition expert, and frequent food-policy critic Marion Nestle of New York University cheered the FDA on her popular Food Politics blog. “How’s this for a surprise? I like it!” Nestle wrote, adding that “These changes should make the label easier for everyone to understand and use.”

In Washington, D.C., the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a 43-year-old research, education, and advocacy group that lobbied for passage of the original 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, was also mostly happy. In a statement, CSPI praised the FDA’s added-sugars proposal but also criticized the agency for not adding a recommended daily intake for sugar. CSPI also said it would prefer that the revised allowance for sodium was slashed further than planned.

So what does the food industry think?

On the surface, it’s playing nice with the first lady and the government. Immediately following the announcement, the leading trade group Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) released a statement by its president and CEO, Pamela Bailey, welcoming the changes. “We look forward to working with the FDA and other stakeholders as these proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label make their way through the rule-making process,” Bailey said. But there’s a price to pay.

If the labels go through as proposed, an FDA official estimated the cost to industry would be roughly $2 billion—although the official also said improved health as a result of the new labels would save the country $30 billion.

Will better labels really help?

Noted health authority Newt Gingrich (that’s sarcasm, folks) says, “Hell, no!” Discussing the topic on CNN, the former Republican presidential candidate and Crossfire cohost deemed the proposed changes “symbolic liberalism.” He elaborated: “We’ve been ignoring government labels for 23 years. So now we’re going to spend an immense amount of money on a multi-year process to rearrange the information, make it larger, and add even more that you’ll never read or use. Because it makes liberals feel good. It is pure symbolism.”

No actual public-health authority concurs with Gingrich about the futility of nutrition labeling. That said, skepticism seems fair given the dismal results of a recent government health initiative requiring the posting of calorie counts at chain restaurants. In a nutshell: It appears to have failed to make an impact. A study of Philadelphia fast-food consumers by researchers from NYU’s Langone Medical Center published in the November 2013 issue of the journalObesity found that just 40 percent of people notice the posted calorie counts, and a meager 10 percent factor them into their food choices.

There’s also the fact that, in the words of the CDC itself, “During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States.” Meaning that since 1994, when the labels first appeared, we’ve gotten fatter and our health has gotten worse, not better.

Still, the question remains: Does the problem lie in the way the information is displayed, or is it that no matter how it’s displayed, 90 percent of people will ignore it?

If you have any thoughts on the proposals, you can let the FDA know. It’s accepting public comments until June 2 (make your comments here and here). Then again, if you’re the type who reads entire documents, you’re probably the type who reads nutrition labels, too—so you’re biased.

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