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Proposed Food Label Changes Need To Focus On What Really Matters

First Lady Michelle Obama has shifted her health crusade from focusing on exercise to making changes to the existing food labels that are found on the back of the foods you see in your local supermarket. The changes are being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a way to combat the rising tide of obesity and chronic disease. If approved, these would be some of the most sweeping changes to the food label in over two decades.

According to a USA Today story about this entitled “Proposed food labels stress calories, sugar, portions,” Obama describes this as a “big deal” that is “going to make a big difference for families all across this country.” While I appreciate the optimistic enthusiasm of the First Lady, unfortunately I don’t agree that what she is suggesting is going to make things better off for the citizens of the United States. Let’s take a look at these proposed changes how examine how they are still putting the emphasis on the exact wrong things!

Here are my major concerns with what the FDA wants to change:

- They want to make the calories bolder and larger for the consumer to see. Okay, fine. But knowing the calorie count in a given food product is equivalent in irrelevancy to knowing what your total cholesterol is. It doesn’t give you any inkling of the quality of those calories and what they are comprised of. And that makes a HUGE difference.

- Grams of “added sugar” from external sources (not naturally found in the food) will be listed separately. I suppose of all the proposed changes this one is the best. But it still doesn’t give credence to the natural sugars in a food as well as the carbohydrates that turn to sugar in the body. People may look at the new food label that shows no “added sugar” in a food they are buying, but it still contain 25 grams of carbohydrate. Then, none-the-wiser, the consumer will erroneously think that food is harmless to them and eat up. When their blood sugar levels soar and weight goes up, they’ll be left scratching their head about what’s going on. A much better option would be to list the carbohydrate counts as teaspoons of sugar like this. Now that’s the visual people need!

- Serving sizes will become more “realistic,” but that’s totally subjective. A serving size of ice cream for your grandma may be one scoop, whereas an I-don’t-care-what-I-shove-in-my-mouth college student maybe opt for 6-8 scoops with Hershey’s syrup slathered on top. Yes, it’s a funny math game that food manufacturers have been playing with consumers for years adjusting the serving size to make their food products fall within the parameters of acceptability in modern nutrition. But making this shift won’t fix the issue.

- Now the changes in how fat is listed is interesting. They admit the quantity of fat isn’t as relevant as the quality of the fat in a given food. That’s good, right? So that “calories from fat” listing will be gone while the total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat will remain. But I really wish they would focus on listing the abundance of POLYUNSATURATED fats (PUFAs) from vegetable/seed oils that are abundant in so many foods, especially the processed, packaged foods. These are the most damaging, highly inflammatory fats in our diet. As we shared in my 2013 Cholesterol Clarity, these high-processed, fake fats along with carbohydrates are the “twin villains” in your cardiovascular and overall health. Keeping inflammation under control is IMPOSSIBLE if you are consuming large quantities of these fats. Get ‘em out of your diet and listing them on a food label would go a long way towards helping consumers do that.

These changes (and perhaps a few more) are many years away, but I see this as a great opportunity for a conversation about how to optimize the tweaks that need to happen to the food label. Yes, it’s better to buy foods that don’t need a food label, that’s for sure. But most Americans aren’t even close to that right now. Of course, we haven’t even gotten to the ingredients listing on a food product that need a desperate overhaul as well to stop hiding culprit ingredients from shoppers. The sad reality is most consumers are only reading the marketing gimmicks on the front packaging and barely giving credence to the Nutrition Facts or ingredients on that back. Helping people understand why they should care is our greatest challenge.

What do you think about these changes that Michelle Obama and the FDA want to make to the food label? Will it help, harm, or make no difference at all in how consumers shop for what they eat? And if you think these proposed changes are harmful, then what changes do you suggest need to be made to make them more helpful? Share your comments below.

  • Dave Sill

    Yep, I agree. Only minor quibble is that it isn’t food manufacturers who’ve been playing games with serving sizes, it’s the FDA; they’re the ones who control the listed serving size. Think 2.5 servings in a bottle of soda is silly? Your tax dollars at work.

    • LLVLCBlog

      True. But the food companies are complicit because it makes their products look better than they really are.

  • Kalynn

    As long the “authorities” believe that calorie counting is a meaningful concept, we will never move off this dime of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • chelsea prather

    Great summary. You nailed it with the statement that “helping people understand why they should care is our greatest challenge”. All of the mixed messages have people so confused and overwhelmed that they often just give up. I agree that encouraging people to read the ingredients would actually help improve overall health. But, that won’t happen until Big Food gets its act together.

  • docww

    I have an even better idea. If it has a label, don’t eat it!

    • LLVLCBlog

      Yep, I said that in the second to last paragraph. :)

    • Kalynn

      Except there are good things with labels just b/c they are in containers (i.e. grape tomatoes, organic full fat dairy, coconut oil, butter, eggs, etc.). if we say just don’t eat things with labels, we will be guilty of the same type of simplistic messages that our government puts forth.

      • LLVLCBlog

        I think it’s more of a general rule about the totality of the food supply. Yes, there are some good foods with labels. :)

  • Chris Nagle

    One of the good things about Australian Food labeling is that All products also have to list the amount of nutrients per 100ml or
    100g, which makes it easier for you to compare different products.

    http://raisingchildren.net.au/verve/_resources/food-labels.gif

    • LLVLCBlog

      Yes, I noticed that when I was there in 2012, Chris. Definitely prevents companies from playing games with the portion sizes.