Be a Label Detective!
Why the Nutrition Facts Label MattersThe Nutrition Facts Panel is the best source of information currently available to consumers. Understanding how to read this panel and how to put this information into context can be a gateway to healthier eating. The stakes are high. Food labels can literally save lives. As the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, states: “Making informed food choices, and being physically active can help people attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce their risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health.” READ MORE
Creating a standardized format for nutrition information was a critical landmark. But that doesn’t mean the Nutrition Facts Panel, which was mandated by law in 1990 and went into effect in 1994, is perfect. And it also doesn’t mean that it is set in concrete. Food labels in the U.S. will continue to evolve, improve and change in ways that will accommodate further progress in nutrition research. That is why it is crucial to understand the basics behind the information on the label. It is this understanding that will help consumers make good food choices no matter how labels change.
On packaged foods there are many different sources of information. The FDA’s Nutrition Facts Panel is required; the rest are optional. In recent years, other label systems have been making inroads. And that is (mostly) a good thing.
The American Heart Association has its heart check symbol that foods are allowed to use if they meet certain nutrition criteria. The Whole Grains Council allows its Whole Grains Stamp to be used for foods that contain certain amounts of whole grains. Food companies have also developed their own labeling programs and in 2009 joined together to introduce a “Smart Choices Program,” which used a check-mark symbol. That program was dropped, however, because of criticism that its standards were too low.
All of those systems focused on specific nutrient content levels. The rating system called NuVal™, on the other hand, is a different type of program. Foods are given one simple number between 1 and 100 that summarizes comprehensive nutritional information. The score reflects 30-150 nutrients and nutrition factors: the good (protein, calcium, vitamins), as well as the not-so-good (sugar, sodium, cholesterol). And then it boils it down into a simple, easy-to-use number. The system uses a complex algorithm to arrive at this single number, but it can be visualized as basically being a division problem: good stuff in the numerator divided by bad stuff in the denominator equals Nuval score.
The results of a single overall number would surprise many consumers. And yet this sort of eye-opening “holistic” perspective is exactly what is needed, says Dr. David Katz. Regular peanut butter scores a 20 on the Nuval scale because it’s packed with protein and good oils; but let’s face it, peanut butter also has lots of calories! So how about fat-reduced peanut butter? This actually scores lower, a mere 7 on the Nuval scale? How can that be? The lower score reflects the fact that reduced-fat peanut butter has had fat removed (and most of it is good fat), as well as protein and fiber. Even worse, it has salt and sugar added to make up for less natural peanut taste. LESS
Bringing Order to Labeling ChaosREAD MORE
“The time is ripe for comprehensive, coordinated action,” according to the report, “Food Labeling Chaos: the case for reform,” published in 2009 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Health experts, consumers, and even some food companies agree that food labeling reform will help consumers improve their diets, reduce the costs of diet-related disease, and provide companies that produce more healthful foods with a level competitive playing field.”
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg agrees: “I believe we now have a wonderful opportunity to make a significant advancement in public health,” stated Hamburg in a 2010 “Dear Industry” letter addressed to food manufacturers, “if we can devise a front-of-package labeling system that consumers can understand and use.”
Getting Real about Serving Size
One of the most important labeling issues that consumer groups feel must be re-addressed by any new labels, either front-of-package or within the existing Nutrition Facts Panel, is that of serving size. Current standards on serving sizes are inconsistent; a serving of pasta, cereal, or pancakes, for example, according to the USDA’s Food Pyramid is different from a serving according to the FDA’s Nutrition Facts Panel.
A criticism that applies to both systems is that the serving sizes do not reflect how much people actually eat. The FDA established serving sizes for more than a hundred categories of food based on survey information from the 1970s and 1980s. But either people ate much less back then or pretended they did. In any case, the result is unrealistically modest serving sizes. The motivation by the food industry to keep up this charade is clear: if the serving size is small enough, the amount of fats, sugar and salt look smaller as well. (The flip side of this problem is that in a few cases food manufacturers will make the serving size larger in order to make the amount of vitamins or fiber look larger as well.) LESS