Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration released details of the proposed nutrition label makeover. Many experts have been weighing in on the new look, trying to determine if the changes will help consumers make better-informed decisions or simply add to widespread confusion about nutrition. Last week, The New England Journal of Medicine published two commentaries from health experts.
Added Sugars, Packaging Buzzwords
The first perspective was written by David A. Kessler, MD, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, author of The End of Overeating and a former FDA commissioner. Kessler believes that the FDA’s proposed changes could help nudge food buyers toward healthier decisions but argues that the new label does not go far enough.
Given that many consumers tend to munch on high-calorie, high-sugar foods at the expense of more nutritious options, Kessler supports the proposed change to distinguish “added sugars” from “total sugars.” In addition, he agrees that the serving size should reflect what a typical person would consume in one sitting — another of the suggested revisions.
But Kessler proposes taking sugar labeling one step further by listing a percent daily value (DV) for added sugars that would help consumers quickly determine if what they’re buying is high or low in such sweeteners.
In addition, the label’s focus on individual nutrients, rather than whole foods, Kessler says, is a potential shortcoming: “There is nothing in the new framework that actively encourages consumers to purchase food rich in the fruits, vegetables and whole grains that are rightfully considered ‘real food,'” Kessler writes. Such emphasis gives food manufacturers incentive to fortify processed foods that may have little nutritional worth — such as sugary cereals — with an endless list of vitamins and minerals, in an effort to catch consumers’ eyes, and to make healthful-sounding claims along the lines of “high-fiber” or “low-fat.”
Other experts also express concern about ingredient lists and possibly misleading label buzzwords. Allison C. Sylvetsky, PhD, and William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, both at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, co-authored a second perspective paper for the journal. They point out that many chemical names for ingredients, including artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose, aren’t recognizable to consumers. Many foods containing artificial sweeteners promote themselves as being “low in sugar” or having “no added sugar.” Such claims may give parents a false sense of security about certain foods and lure them into choosing highly processed items for children. Artificially sweetened products, the authors also note, may be sweeter than their sugar-spiked counterparts and can still cultivate a sweet tooth in children.
Sylvetsky and Dietz recommend that the FDA adopt a more straightforward and easily understandable ingredient labeling system similar to what’s in place in Canada, where packaged foods indicate if they contain one or more artificial sweetener. More transparent food marketing, they say, will help empower parents to make better educated food choices for children.
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.