As a mother, grocery shopper and nutrition nerd when it comes to her and her daughter's food, I was intrigued by the FDA's announcement that it was overhauling the Nutrition Facts Label for the first time in 20 years. I've poked my nose in a lot of labels during that period, and it's not always an enlightening experience.
All science, including nutrition science, evolves as more info becomes available. I need only mention trans fats that went from health food to banned substance to make that point. Not surprisingly, the information we need as a consumer to eat healthily changes too.
Nutrition facts labels are important for everyone, not only health nuts or the infirm. Few folks, except those in deep denial or a time capsule since Armstrong's moon landing, would dispute that the food you chow today will affect your health tomorrow and in years to come. According to studies, more and more consumers read food labels and nutrition facts.
Given this, nutrition labels must give useful information and be easy to read and understand.
Looking at details of the proposed changes on the FDA website, I was happy at some additions and disappointed by some omissions.
Serving sizes on which calories are calculated will be increased to reflect the amounts real people, not munchkins or large rodents, eat. Calories matter. Measly portion sizes with corresponding minuscule calorie counts are nothing more than misleading. It's good they're going.
Calories will be stated in large bold text so you can see them without a magnifying glass.
Calories per container will be listed -- a help when calculating how guilty you should feel after downing the whole bag of chips.
Added sugar will be identified. This is terrific. Currently, only total sugar, whether naturally occurring or added, is listed. The experts agree that we eat way too much of the refined goop in its myriad guises and that our collective metabolic health is going to pot because of it. See Dr. Robert Lustig's YouTube video "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," if you're not convinced.
Identifying "added sugar" on the Nutrition Facts will help steer me to something my or my daughter's metabolism can better handle and may encourage manufacturers to use less. Collectively, our palates will benefit from less sugar so we can appreciate the natural sweet of many foods.
Vitamin D and Potassium will be listed along with Calcium and Iron. The science suggests we're not getting enough vitamin D or potassium and that our health is suffering for it.
D is needed for healthy bones and immune function. Our current sun-phobic lifestyle may have reduced skin cancer rates but compromised vitamin D levels. Unless you're swigging cod liver oil, supplements and fortified foods are where most of us get our D.
Similarly, potassium is important for keeping hypertension in check, and we don't eat enough potassium-rich food like nuts, seaweeds and greens.
The proposed changes will alert consumers to the risks of deficiency and promote fortification.
Nutrition Facts that remain confusing or, worse, misleading
Remove the loophole that "all" trans-fats need not be identified? Hopefully sooner rather than later, artificial trans fats will be a thing of the past. Nevertheless, that will take time and current FDA rules permit manufacturers to claim a food has 0 trans-fats when it may contain up to .49 grams per serving. Eating several servings may mean you unknowingly gobble substantial amounts. A congressional bill introduced last year is trying to fix this loophole but so far no cigar.
Food either has artificial trans-fats or it doesn't. Any artificial trans-fat should be listed on the Nutrition Facts Label.
What's missing on the Proposed Nutrition Facts
(1) The amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fats -- Currently, the Nutrition Facts list total fats along with saturated and trans-fats.
However, the consensus is we're not eating enough omega-3 fats and suffering for it with inflammatory and other health conditions. Listing omega-3s will remind us to get enough and encourage fortification.
It's not just overall omega-3s that are important but the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3s. Currently, we consume too many omega-6, which experts believe diminishes the benefits of omega-3.
Labeling amounts of omega-3s and omega-6s is important, so consumers can ensure they get enough of the first and not too much of the second.
(2) Glycemic Load (GL) -- Poor blood sugar control contributes to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia and, possibly, cancer. Consuming foods that make your blood sugar shoot to the moon and back on a regular basis is unwise.
GL is a standardized measurement that let consumers compare the effects of carbohydrate-containing foods on blood sugar. The Nutrition Facts should include a food's GL.
(3) Orac Values -- As a Mother, I seek foods with nutritional bang for the buck. In particular, I want antioxidant-rich grub for my kid. While imperfect, researchers at Tuft's University have developed a scale that assesses a food's antioxidant capacity. It's called the ORAC scale. ORAC stands for "Oxygen Radical Absorbency Capacity" -- a mouthful but an important one.
Until 2010, the USDA listed foods' ORAC values on its website. They deleted this in 2010 stating there was no link between ORAC values and human health.
Listing a food's ORAC score on the Nutrition Facts Label or, for that matter, some indication of that food's phytochemical quality (not all phytochemicals have been identified) would help me compare nutritional quality among foods.
GM Foods? Some argue that genetically-engineered foods won't affect nutrition, except to make them better, and that allergies and the environment aren't an issue. I'd like to decide, thank you.
Europe allows GM foods but requires labeling so consumers can decide whether they want to partake. Folks in the U.S. should have the same freedom of information and choice. The Nutrition Facts label should indicate what ingredients, if any, are genetically modified.
And Last... The Dirty Little Secret About Foods With Nutrition Facts Labels
The irony is that many foods bearing an FDA nutrition facts label are not the ones you should be eating the most.
Packaged foods are often processed fare, chockablock with added sugars; depleted of health giving fiber and with other nutrients damaged or removed through the food refining process.
As a busy parent, my daughter and I get enough of the packaged convenience foods that make our lives easier. We struggle, however, to get enough fruits and veg and especially greens as well as oily fish and pastured meat -- most of which won't be wearing a Nutrition Facts Label.
In an ideal world, we'll skip the apple sauce and the Nutrition Facts Label and bite into that apple?
Of course, this is the real world and, for that reason, Nutrition Facts on packaged foods are important. Let the FDA know what info you need to eat better.