By JJ Virgin, Hive Advisor
You’ve probably read about the proposed U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s changes to the Nutrition Facts Label, which it claims will “better help consumers make informed food choices and follow healthy dietary practices.” Keep in mind these changes – the first labeling changes since 1990 – are proposed and can still undergo modifications.
But let’s get the purple elephant out of the room first: An overemphasis on calories, highlighted by a larger number on the Nutrition Facts Label; “Your body is not a bank account, it’s a biochemistry lab,” I often say. The calories-in-calories-out myth has become woefully outdated. Calories do count, but where they come from matters far more.
I’m disappointed, too, how cholesterol still gets a high ranking, since we now understand dietary cholesterol is very different from blood cholesterol. Same with saturated fat: Today experts argue it’s not the “bad” type of fat we once considered it, so why are we still demonizing it? (See The Great Cholesterol Myth by Drs. Jonny Bowden and Stephen Sinatra to understand why cholesterol and saturated fat are often unfairly stigmatized.)
I’ve had several colleagues comment that the revised label still doesn’t account for genetically modified foods. I’m adamantly anti-GMO. And, while every label should include whether a food is GMO, the Nutrition Facts listing would not be the place to do so.
Overall, these proposed changes are a giant step in the right direction. They make nutrition info more accessible, are more realistic about actual portion sizes, and highlight problem ingredients like added sugars. Five highlights of this proposed revised label include:
- It focuses on added sugar: With current labeling, you have no idea how much sugar in a product is naturally occurring versus added sugars. The “added sugar” listing will hopefully pressure manufacturers to add less sugar to products. As I research sugar more and more, I tell people the No. 1 thing they can do to improve health is to eliminate as much added sugar as possible from their diets. This labeling will help people know exactly how much they are getting. Worth mentioning: Your best choices are whole, unprocessed foods, which have no added sugars to begin with.
- It differentiates among types of fat: I also appreciate the revised labeling will no longer lump all fats together, but instead singles out saturated and transfats. I’m not so concerned about saturated fat, particularly if it comes from healthy sources like coconut milk. Transfat is a far bigger concern. Heads up: Guidelines allow manufacturers to label “0 grams transfat” if the product contains trivial amounts, so reading labels and looking for red flags like “partially hydrogenated” becomes crucial.
- It includes vitamin D: Vitamin D finally gets the recognition it deserves on this revised label. Very few foods contain this crucial vitamin, and many folks test low in vitamin D. We have numerous studies that show low levels of vitamin D can adversely affect everything from fat loss to cardiovascular disease.
- The “get enough” label includes fiber: Fiber is another biggie. Rather than currently lumping it under the “carbohydrates” category (along with sugar), the revised proposal also puts it under the “get enough” category, which makes fiber far more relevant as an underconsumed but crucial nutrient. I want people to get 50 grams of fiber every day, and highlighting its importance on this label makes people more informed about higher-fiber foods.
- It’s more realistic about serving size. Did you know a 20-ounce soda is actually two and a half servings? The revised label would make the entire bottle one serving, so 110 calories suddenly becomes a whopping 275 calories (and 75 grams of sugar!). Manufacturers know creating unrealistic portion sizes allows them to make foods appear lower in calories and sugars than the amount people actually eat. Telling the consumer there are 8 (or however many) portions per container puts that food into perspective, and what they might have dismissed as a “few hundred extra calories” suddenly becomes half their day’s calories when they realize the amount they actually eat.
Overall, I’m optimistic about the FDA’s proposed changes even if I don’t think they’re perfect.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This needs an author footer that isn’t in my sheet.]