ISU professor optimistic that bold new nutrition labels will make a difference

Proposed nutrition label

Proposed FDA label

AMES, Iowa – New nutrition labels proposed by the Food and Drug Administration will make it easy for consumers to spot just how many calories are in a candy bar or a bag of chips. The changes require the calories per serving be prominently displayed in bold font. Ruth Litchfield, an associate professor and associate chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, thinks the new look will have an impact.   

“Given that the number one health problem today is obesity and obesity is directly related to calories in and calories out, that number is now front and center,” Litchfield said. “Just seeing the calories so big and so bold will hopefully draw some attention and get people to look at the information.”

Consumers still will need to understand that the calories are based on a serving size and not the entire package or container. However, the proposed changes require updates to the serving size to better reflect the amount people consume and not how much they should consume. Litchfield said the use of dual-column labels also will eliminate some of the confusion. The FDA is recommending that larger packages that could be consumed in one sitting list the nutritional information per serving and per package.

Dual nutrition label

Dual label (larger photo)

“We have a lot of folks who are consuming convenience products that are perceived as a single serving. But if you look closely at the label, some of those giant muffins may be three servings, so the information you’re currently looking at is if you ate a third of the product,” Litchfield said.

Natural vs. added sugars

Sugar can be a source of confusion for many consumers, Litchfield said. That’s because current labels lump it all together with no distinction between natural and added sugars. That too will change with the new labels – making it easier for consumers to follow health guidelines.

The American Heart Association recommends eating only six to nine teaspoons of added sugar a day. But with some products, such as applesauce, it can be hard to figure how much sugar it naturally contains and what is added. The new labels will list total sugars and then added sugars on a separate line.  

“I think this will be useful for consumers because a lot of our extra calories are coming from refined processed foods that have added sugars,” Litchfield said. “I think the new labels will make it clearer for people to understand and actually implement what we’re recommending.”

Nutritional information for vitamin D and potassium also will be included on the new labels. Litchfield says this is a needed change because most Americans are not getting enough of these nutrients in their diet. Vitamin D improves bone health and protects against chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, and many types of cancer. Potassium is beneficial in lowering blood pressure.

Will it work?

It could take two to five years before consumers even will see the new labels on products, Litchfield said. The food industry will need time to make the format changes and for analysis of the new nutrients that must be included.     

Litchfield is optimistic that the label changes will make people stop and take notice of just how many calories and added sugar they’re eating. But she questions whether the average consumer really understands what all the numbers mean. She points to the Percent Daily Value as one example. The new labels will still list this percentage for each nutrient, which is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

“If your caloric needs are higher or lower that number doesn’t apply to you and you’ll have to adjust,” Litchfield said. “Maybe it would be better to get away from the numbers entirely. I just don’t think the numbers mean a lot to the general consumer.”

Some countries have made such a move and now use colors – green, yellow or red – to help consumers easily identify healthy products.