Revised food labels still won’t tell whole story

By Jane E. Brody

Are you among the half of Americans who say they check the nutrition labels on packaged foods when shopping? If you can read the information without a magnifying glass, do you understand what the many numbers mean to your health?

Do you look only at calories, or do you also check the amounts of sugar, sodium, protein, or dietary fiber in a serving? And does the serving size listed represent how much you might actually consume at a sitting?

The Nutrition Facts Label, mandated by Congress on processed food packages since 1990, was designed to help Americans consume a more nutritious diet. If manufacturers had to reveal the nutrients and calories in foods, the reasoning went, they might be encouraged to add more nourishing ingredients and to eliminate or reduce those that are detrimental to health.

This strategy worked well for reducing artery-damaging trans fats, now all but gone from processed foods, but not nearly so well for ridding products of salt and sugar. And manufacturers added things like vitamins, minerals, and fiber to make products appear healthier than they really are.

“Although the numbers can look good, the product may not be real food and have no nutritional value,” said Dr. David Kessler who, as the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), championed the development of the current label.

The epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes show that the goal of a healthier population has yet to be realized. One obstacle is that those most likely to read food labels are health-conscious people who least need to do so.

But another problem is the label itself, which can border on meaningless for many consumers, especially those who cannot relate grams of a nutrient or percentages of the daily value to the amount of food that goes in their mouths.

So, prompted by the Institute of Medicine, the FDA is planning a revision. It will be a while in coming: Thousands of public comments must be reviewed, then final rules issued and the food industry given time to implement them.

Some of the proposed changes should be helpful. For example, instead of listing sugar as a single entry, the new label would separately list “added sugars” to distinguish added sugars from those naturally present.

Also, the proposed label will highlight the number of calories in the amounts of food most people consume at a sitting. Though an official “serving” of a soft drink might be 8 ounces, for example, people may habitually consume the entire 12-ounce can or 20-ounce bottle; if so, the calories in that amount would be featured on the label.

Likewise, a serving of chips may be 12 chips. But if people typically eat a whole bag of, say, 36 chips, that calorie count would be most prominent.

Labels on ice cream, too, now list one-half cup as a serving. That would increase to one cup on the new label, bringing a serving of Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream, for example, to a whopping 680 calories.

With that amount prominently displayed on the carton, a shopper might instead choose Edy’s (also Dreyer’s) Slow Churned Double Fudge Brownie Ice Cream — just 240 calories a cup.

Official serving sizes are supposed to reflect what people actually eat, but they are based on what Americans typically consumed in the 1970s. More recent national nutrition surveys show that the average person eats considerably more of many foods; hence the uptick in serving sizes.

Given the high cost of changing hundreds of thousands of food labels … many health professionals believe the revisions, though positive overall, do not go nearly far enough.

Health professionals are concerned that the labels fail to give harried shoppers a fast and easy way to distinguish among similar products. Using front-of-package traffic light signals to highlight the good, bad, or neutral health value of a food could help fix this problem.

“Ecuador is already doing this because they’re so worried about obesity,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said in an interview. “In Great Britain, it was shown that when people saw red dots on a package, they didn’t buy it.”

The label would also be more meaningful if it used common kitchen measurements, like teaspoons of sugar in a serving rather than grams, Dr. Nestle said. Fewer people might down a 20-ounce cola if they knew it contained 16 teaspoons of sugar.

The proposed revision also does not address the often daunting ingredients list, which currently enables manufacturers to disguise the total contribution of undesirable nutrients by listing each one separately. A consumer cannot tell that added sugar is the main ingredient if sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, agave, and grape juice concentrate are listed individually.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has proposed that ingredients like sugars and fats be grouped together and that the label distinguish major ingredients from minor ones making up 2 percent or less of a product.

Also absent in the proposed revision is information that would “actively encourage consumers to purchase real foods rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” Dr. Kessler said. “The answer to obesity, if there is one, is eating real food and moving away from foods laden with fats, sugars, and salt. Highly processed food goes down in a whoosh, but real food slows down eating.”

Instead, the new label, like the current one, would focus on specific nutrients and give “food companies an incentive to fortify their products so they can make claims such as ‘added fiber’ or to produce sugar-laden foods that can be labeled ‘low fat,’” he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine in July.

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