New Year, New Food Label?
Do you know how to tell what is in the food that you are eating?
Edited By:Alexandra Vaughn , MD
Welcome to 2018! It’s the year of the dog according to the Chinese astrological calendar, and January is the month of new. New resolutions, new tips on how to stay organized, and new mantras to be better than the year prior. For the food industry, the new year has its own brand of new. After the controversial passing of the 1990 NLEA (Nutrition Labeling and Education Act), the first and only official nutrition design was mandated for all food products except for meat and poultry. Now, 24 years later, the food label design is receiving a facelift. Marketers who make over ten million dollars in food sales will now be required to make changes designed to better assist consumers who want to make healthy choices. Let’s review the changes, and how this new impacts you!
1. A Trendier Design
For starters, labels are going large. New changes will include a larger font size and bold headlines for calories, serving size, and nutrients of public health importance. The design intends to better alert consumers of the number of nutrients/calories estimated to be eaten in one sitting. As a consumer, this means a better understanding of the nutrient content in say, a bag of fiery hot potato chips.
2. “New” Nutrition Science Updates
We are in an era where the study of nutrition science is blossoming. Scientists are now investigating novel genetic expression (nutrigenomics) that can be impacted by the foods we eat. Other areas of interest include the impact of food on our gut microbiome, the aging process, and the prevention of chronic disease. Furthermore, nutrients of public concern have changed since the FDA originally enacted labels in the nineties. In particular, these nutrients will be emphasized on the new labels.
Credit: Ariel Maroon
High intake of refined and highly processed carbohydrates and added sugars has now been linked to a plethora of health issues, including obesity, inflammation of the GI tract, nutrient depletion, acne, and cardiometabolic risk factors such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The American Heart Association now recommends added sugar intake be limited to 6 or 9 teaspoons per day for women and men, respectively. A component of this involves teaching consumers how to recognize the estimated 61 different names for sugar, as well as understand that approximately 75% of all packaged foods contain added sugar. This startling figure is partly attributed to the chemical composition of sugar that allows for strong preservation of texture, flavor, and shelf-life.
What will the change look like?
All food products will now have a subcategory of added sugars. The amount present in the item will list the amount of sugar in grams, as well as in a daily value percentage.
Quality, not quantity of fat
Fat intake has also been re-examined over the past decade. The type of fat has become more important than the quantity. The USDA review of the 2015 American Dietary Guidelines even referenced multiple studies that could not confirm a significant association between total fat reduction and lowered risk of cardiovascular events, mortality, or diabetes. Scientists are now recommending that the general public focus on eating foods that contain a higher ratio of poly and monounsaturated fats, compared to saturated and trans fats.
What will the change look like?
The new label will no longer list calories from fat and will continue to include gram amounts of total fat, saturated fat, and trans-fat.
Micronutrients and public health
Micronutrients are just as important for public health, and include vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. These minor element requirements were initially calculated by the Food and Nutrition Board in the 1940’s and labeled RDAs, or recommended daily allowances. The new label will finally incorporate the most recent RDA’s for specific micronutrients such as vitamin D, potassium, iron, calcium, and fiber. This is a drastic change from the old 1994 design, which ironically used old RDA values from 1968. The inclusion of vitamin D and potassium specifically, reflects the new public health concern of deficiency. Vitamin D deficiency is estimated to impact 50% of the population worldwide, with associations to numerous chronic diseases including cancer, hypertension, cognitive impairment, autoimmune diseases, and obesity. Different benefits have been linked to optimal intake of potassium, including improved heart health, as well as prevention of renal failure.
What will the change look like?
Vitamin D and potassium contents will now be listed and require actual amounts as well as updated daily value percentages. Updated daily values for sodium, fiber, iron, and calcium will be included.
3. Serving Sizes
Serving sizes will be highlighted and reflect larger portions. As highlighted by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, this may assist consumers in making healthier choices. Bagged items may even have two labels, to reflect the nutrient content of one serving size versus the entire bag. Studies differ on the impact this may have on consumers. Some scientists worry that people will eat more, while others are concerned food may actually lose nutrient density. Suffice to say, this change remains under investigation.
4. Clarification Of Daily Values
Finally, daily value percentages will be clarified at the bottom of the label. The FDA hopes to eliminate confusion about percentages and how they are applied to a daily intake of each nutrient listed. Daily values are percentages designed to reflect the amount of a nutrient present in the context of an average healthy adult daily diet. Here is a comparison of the old label versus the new.
Overall, these new changes aim to simplify label reading and encourage consumers to take more time considering food choices. The FDA has heard the protest for easier label reading, and hopefully, this will spur even more public health interest in diet and wellness. A new label may just be a continuation of the new nutritional renaissance.
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