The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 20 year old Nutrition Facts Label is getting a makeover! Although these changes apply to products produced in the US, given that they also appear on shelves in Australian supermarkets, understanding the changes is relevant for Australians too. Looking at these changes is also an opportunity to see how we could improve food labels in Australia. The new labelling is a step in the right direction, but … there is still room for improvement.
The old label vs the new label
The welcome changes
The layout and type size of ‘servings per container’, ‘serving size’ and ‘calories’ makes it easier to read this information on the label.
Calories from fat
Calories from fat will not appear on the new label. This was of little nutritional relevance and only served to add confusion and clutter to the label.
The amount of added sugars (as grams and as percent Daily Value) will appear on the nutrition label. Finally! No more guessing whether the sugar is from foods naturally containing sugar (fruit, dried fruit, vegetables etc) or from added sugars. This will help consumers in the quest to reduce added sugars.
Calcium, Iron, Vitamin D & Potassium
The amounts of Calcium and Iron are still listed but Vitamin A and C are replaced with Vitamin D and Potassium, which provide more meaningful nutritional information. In the United States, manufacturers voluntarily fortify a large number of foods with Vitamin D – milk, margarine, breakfast cereals, pastries and breads so this labelling is very relevant.
Amount of vitamins & minerals
Manufacturers must declare the actual amount of vitamins and minerals, as well as the existing percent Daily Value. This will help consumers to ‘tally’ their total intake of these vitamins and minerals from food and non-food sources (eg supplements).
The footnote explaining percent Daily Value is simplified.
The not so welcome changes
By law, serve sizes are based on amounts people actually eat and drink NOT a recommended amount. These reference amounts were last determined in 1993. However, how much people eat and drink has changed since then. No surprises there. For example, a serve of ice-cream was previously considered to be ½ cup but is now considered 2/3 cup. However, the reference amount of yoghurt will go from 8 ounces (about 240 mg) to 6 ounces (about 180 mg). The problem with this is when we go by amounts eaten, we encourage smaller serves of healthier foods and larger serves of discretionary foods. This is counterproductive to encouraging healthy eating habits. It is one thing to have reference serving sizes for foods (to track eating patterns) but it is another to use these for suggested serve sizes on food packaging. If people are looking to learn what a recommended serve size is from the nutrition panel, they may get a distorted suggestion.
There are some foods and beverages that are labelled as single serves, when clearly they are not. Both a 12 ounce bottle AND a 20 ounce bottle of soft drink (which roughly equate to Australia’s 375ml can and 600ml bottle) are both labelled as ‘one serve’ since they are both consumed in one sitting.
In Australia, the same labelling problem exists for soft drinks and other beverages. A 375ml can contains about 40g of sugar but a 600ml bottle contains about 60g sugar. Labelling both as ‘one serve’ downplays the recommendations to reduce added sugar intake to 10% of energy intake (about 50g or 12 teaspoons of sugar) per day. Similarly, a 600ml of flavoured milk (more than 2 serves) is labelled as ‘one serve’ on the grounds that that is how it is consumed. This goes against efforts to educate consumers that a glass of milk (250ml) is a serve.
A 170g packet of crisps could also be eaten in a sitting, but it is not labelled as one serve but as 6 serves. Why is there an exception for beverages, especially when sweetened beverages are not without risk to our health?
If manufacturers keep increasing packaging size, serving sizes will also go up. Worse still, if manufacturers label the new amounts consumed in a sitting as a serving size, this encourages eating to this amount. This fuels portion distortion, overconsumption and contributes to the obesity epidemic.
For some products, a dual column label will be used. Both a ‘per serve’ column (the typical amount eaten) and ‘per package’ (ie eating the whole packet) will appear. This sounds good in theory, however, it will make it more difficult to compare like products. Imagine a manufacturer makes Product A and lists nutritional information for a serve size of 45g and then for the entire packet. Say another manufacturer makes a similar product, Product B, and lists nutritional information for a serve size of 30g and then for the entire packet. It will be difficult to compare the two products given that their serve sizes are different. If then the packaging size is also different, then it becomes much harder to make any comparison between the two. The only way that nutritional labels can be effective is to control the serve size on like products and/or the packet size. We still have a long way to go with labelling serve sizes.
With calories in bold, the focus is still predominantly on calories not quality ingredients (see below).
Amount of sugar
The label only helps consumers understand how much sugar has been added to the product. It doesn’t mention the source of the added sugars. Consumers, especially those with health issues, would still need to read the ingredient list to know the source of these sugars, as they can impact on the nutritional and health profile of the product.
Added sugars: the negatives
The labelling of added sugars could have negative consequences. It may encourage manufacturers to totally or partially substitute sugars with non-nutritive sweeteners in an attempt to make the nutritional profile of their product look healthier/lower in added sugars. However, more and more research is showing that sugar reduction rather than sugar substitution is the way to go.
Fruit & vegetable juice concentrates
For the purpose of nutritional labelling, fruit and vegetable juice concentrates are not considered ‘added sugars.’ Perhaps our first impression would be to agree with this definition, since it is the sugar naturally present in fruits and vegetables. However, fruit and vegetable juice concentrates are not equal to fruit and vegetables. They are a concentrated liquid version of sugars found in fruit and vegetables. It would be similar to calling cane sugar ‘evaporated cane juice’ to move away from using the word ‘sugar’.
A Nutrition Facts Label can only tell us the quantity of macronutrients and micronutrients, however, the ingredients used in making the product give an insight to the quality of the product. Ingredients have traditionally been placed to the side, or at the bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label, and often, in very small type. The ingredients list should be the first port of call for nutritional information about a product, and therefore their rightful place would be above the Nutrition Facts Label.
The Start date for the changes is 26th July, 2018. That’s a long wait!