Thursday, February 27, 2014, was by all accounts a big day for anyone interested in food and nutrition. More than 20 years after its introduction and more than ten years in the works, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released revisions to the Nutrition Facts label (often referred to as the Nutrition Facts Panel, or NFP) that appears on nearly all packaged foods. If adopted, the new Nutrition Facts label would include important changes to the serving size and calorie information designed to make labels easier to read and to help consumers make more informed food and beverage choices. As two-thirds (67%) of consumers say they look at the NFP when making food and beverage purchases (International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation Food & Health Survey, 2013), these revisions offer a timely update to an important and informative tool for shoppers.
A Brief History of the Nutrition Facts Panel
In 1993, the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly launched the first Nutrition Facts label to help inform the public of the nutrient and ingredient composition of packaged foods. Despite the many changes in how and what Americans eat since then, there have been few changes to the original Nutrition Facts label. An exception to this was the addition of trans fats to the label in 2006 (the use of trans fat has largely been discontinued in recent years).
According to IFIC Foundation’s consumer research, many of these proposed changes complement and address consumers’ preferences for clear, easier-to-read labels. (Food Label Consumer Research, 2012)
IFIC Foundation Senior Vice President of Nutrition and Food Safety, Marianne Smith Edge, MS, RD, LD, FADA, FAND, says this research reveals not only that “basic is better” when it comes to information, but also that additional consumer education and research hold the keys to success. “Information on nutrition labels needs to maximize clarity and minimize confusion if we want to help consumers make the most healthful dietary choices possible,” she said.
Some of the proposed changes include:
Proposed Nutrition Facts label
Calories and Percent Daily Value:
- Making calorie and serving size information larger to place emphasis and make it more visible.
- Shifting the location of the Percent Daily Value (PDV) column on the label and updating daily values for notable components like sodium and dietary fiber. The footnote would also be revised to provide a clearer explanation of PDV, which IFIC Foundation research has shown is confusing to consumers.
Number of Servings and Serving Sizes:
- Updating the serving sizes to more accurately reflect actual consumption in a single sitting. One criticism of the current label is that a package that appears to be a single serving may contain multiple servings, according to the label, and consumers may not be accounting for the additional calories from consuming the whole package.
- Requiring that food and beverage containers indicate whether the contents are to be consumed in one sitting or, if more than one sitting is intended, to provide a ‘dual column’ to indicate both ‘per serving’ and ‘per package’ calorie and nutrition information.
- Requiring manufacturers to declare the amount of “nutrients of public health significance,” referring to those vitamins for which consumers are not getting enough in their diet, such as potassium (a mineral that contributes to reduced blood pressure) and vitamin D (a vitamin that contributes positively to bone health) on the label. Vitamins A and C would no longer be required on the label because they are widely available in the diet.
- Including information about “added sugars.” Currently, there is a line for sugars on the label that accounts for both naturally occurring as well as added sugars. As they are nutritionally and chemically the same, there has not been a science-based reason to separate them; however, other concerns cited by some seem to have driven the proposed addition.
The issue of labeling added sugars along with total sugars has been the subject of much debate. According to the best science available, sugars, whether naturally occurring or added, provide the same amount of calories (4 per gram) and are metabolized by our bodies in the same way; therefore, such a distinction could create confusion. The Federal Register notice for revised NFP also states that inadequate evidence exists to support the direct contribution of added sugars to obesity or heart disease. In addition, from a practical application standpoint, there is currently no standardized analytical method to distinguish between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars in foods or beverages, so it leaves the unanswered question, If added sugars were required to be listed, how would the accuracy of this information be ensured?
What Comes Next?
All aspects of the proposed revisions will be considered for their scientific and regulatory merit, policy implications, and public understanding before the changes are finalized.
On March 3, 2014 the proposed revisions were published in the Federal Register. The comment period is open until June 3, 2014.
The process for implementing the revisions promises to be long and laborious, with changes to the label not anticipated to be finalized until 2015, and new labels likely not appearing on products in stores until 2017 or later.
As the process unfolds, it will be important to educate the public on these important changes and what they mean for consumers. “Registered Dietitians are terrific nutrition educators and can use the information on the revised label to enhance consumer understanding of nutrients, calories, and serving sizes; all subjects that can be confusing to people,” says Smith Edge.
The regulatory ride ahead may be a bumpy one, but the anticipated benefits will likely outweigh the potential drawbacks as consumers look to government agencies and health professionals to help them eat more healthfully and live more balanced lifestyles.
For IFIC Foundation’s food label research, visit: