Food Labels: What They Reveal and Conceal, Part 4

Man Reading Food Labels

Accuracy of nutrition information

The Nutrition Facts Label gives a summary of the estimated nutrient levels in a food, based on the specified serving size. Manufacturers originally used their own discretion in setting serving sizes, which often resulted in wildly inappropriate amounts. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) put a stop to highly variable serving sizes by setting standards for all common food products. The NLEA specified reference amounts that supposedly represent the amount “customarily consumed per eating occasion,” but many of these have come into question, and the FDA is now considering revisions.

Proposed changes to nutrition facts label

The FDA has published two proposed rules amending the labeling regulations for conventional foods and dietary supplements. The changes include the following:

  • Revise serving sized to reflect amounts commonly consumed by the S. population today, which would result in larger serving sizes for many products
  • Require more packaged foods that are generally eaten at one sitting to be considered single servings
  • Require mid-size packages that could be eaten at either one or multiple sittings to list dual values: per serving and per package
  • Remove “calories from fat” from the Nutrition Facts Label
  • Require “added sugar” to be listed separately under “sugars”
  • Update daily values for sodium, fiber, and vitamin D
  • Require potassium and vitamin D amounts to be given for all products; vitamins A and C will no longer be listed
  • Revise the label design and display the calorie count in larger type

The FDA is accepting comments about these changes until August 1, 2014. The proposed rules are Nos. 2014-04387 and 2014-04385 in the Federal Register and can be accessed online at www.federalregister.gov. The NLEA not only made nutrition information mandatory but also shifted the emphasis from necessary nutrients to allegedly unhealthy ones, such as fat and sodium.

Unfortunately, the nutrition facts do not distinguish between naturally occurring sodium and refined salt, or between natural fats and refined oils. Thus, a quick glance at the label may suggest that a heavily processed frozen dinner is more nutritious than a salad with cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. Many people assume that food has been analyzed to determine the nutrient content listed on the label. This is not necessarily true. Testing can be expensive, and FDA policy encourages the use of nutrient databases to determine the nutritional values of many foods. Unfortunately, this practice does not take into account the fact that nutrient values vary widely, based on factors such as cultivar or variety, species, regional origin, soil quality, maturity at harvest, length of storage, and processing methods.

The FDA uses a three-tiered system to regulate the accuracy of nutrient values. Fortified foods - those with added vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.- must contain at least 100 percent of the amount listed on the label for each of the added ingredients. This strict standard means that these products may contain more - sometimes much more - than the listed value in order to ensure compliance. “Undesirable” nutrients (which include calories, sugars, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium) must be present at 120 percent or less, which may result in label values that are overestimated. All other naturally occurring nutrients must be present at 80 percent or more, which may result in underestimated values.

On the whole, the NLEA has provided the public with important nutrition information on food labels. However, there are still some significant gaps that conscientious consumers should be aware of. By far, the most important step in choosing healthful foods for your family is to read the ingredient list for all the products you buy. If the food is indeed healthful, the list should be fairly short and the ingredients both familiar and pronounceable.

  • Require “added sugar” to be listed separately under “sugars”
  • Update daily values for sodium, fiber, and vitamin D
  • Require potassium and vitamin D amounts to be given for all products; vitamins A and C will no longer be listed
  • Revise the label design and display the calorie count in larger type

- JENNIFER HANDY

REFERENCES

  • Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed Per Eating Occasion, 21 C.F.R. Sect. 101.12 (2013).
  • Bruns P, Callen C. Cereal and bakery products: the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act challenge. In: Shapiro R, ed. Nutrition Labeling Handbook. New York, NY: Marcel Dekker, Inc.; 1995:495-508.
  • Heimbach JT, Egan SK. Compliance with nutrition content declaration requirements. In: Shapiro R, ed. Nutrition Labeling Handbook. New York, NY: Marcel Dekker, Inc.; 1995:509-550.
  • Bender MM, Rader JI, McClure FD. Guidance for Industry: Nutrition Labeling Manual - A Guide for Developing and Using Data Bases. http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm063113.htm Published March 17, 1998. Updated May 18, 2014



Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Summer 2014 | Volume 38, Number 2
Copyright © 2014 Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, Inc.®
All Rights Reserved Worldwide

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