Nutrition facts label getting a makeover

Feb 28, 2014

In its first overhaul in 20 years, the FDA is planning a significant update of its nutrition facts panel.

The FDA said the changes are necessary to keep pace with the science of nutrition, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. The new label also features more realistic serving sizes, and more prominently highlights calories.

Some of the changes to the label the FDA proposed today would:

  • Require information about the amount of "added sugars" in a food product.
  • Continue to require "Total Fat," "Saturated Fat," and "Trans Fat" on the label, although "Calories from Fat" would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.
  • Update serving size requirements to reflect what people actually eat, not what they should be eating based on portion sizes more attuned to the 1970s and ’80s. Twenty-ounce bottles of soda would be counted as one serving, rather than the 2.5 servings often listed now.
  • Refresh the format to emphasize certain elements, such as calories, serving sizes and Percent Daily Value, key factors in addressing obesity and heart disease.
  • Present "dual column" labels to indicate both "per serving" and "per package" calorie and nutrition information for larger packages that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings.
  • Require the declaration of potassium and vitamin D, nutrients that some in the U.S. population are not getting enough of.
  • Revise the Daily Values for a variety of nutrients such as sodium, dietary fiber and Vitamin D.

"Unless you had a thesaurus, a microscope, a calculator or a degree in nutrition, you were out of luck," said Michelle Obama at a White House event Thursday on deciphering the current label. "So you felt defeated, and you just went back to buying the same stuff."

The administration estimates that the relabeling could cost the industry $2 billion to implement but will result in $20 billion to $30 billion in benefits over 20 years.

The FDA hopes the change will prompt the food industry to reformulate many products. The food industry has previously protested the "added sugars" line and may lobby to delay the changes.

"We are not just changing the presentation of information," Stuart Pape, a lawyer at Patton Boggs who represents food companies, told the Washington Post. "It is about as far-reaching in the food industry as one can envision."

What do you think of the proposed changes to the FDA’s nutritional facts panel? Should the food industry and retailers support or seek to prevent the changes?

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17 Comments on "Nutrition facts label getting a makeover"

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Dr. Stephen Needel

If we’re going to require nutritional labeling, I like that the serving sizes are going to become more realistic. To me, that’s the biggest positive change. The industry should just go along or push to keep things simple. No win in fighting it. Shoppers who care about nutritional content will find the new labels better. Shoppers who don’t care, don’t care what’s on them (heck, I know my Cocoa Puffs are not the best thing I could be eating).

David Biernbaum

The new updated Nutrition label looks fine to me. I don’t know why people get worked into a tizzy about updating the labels every 20 years or so to provide more meaningful information to consumers. We know a lot more about nutrition in 2014 than we did in 1994, don’t we? I do always hope that the FDA will be reasonable about how much time they allow though for the sometimes expensive switchover. After all, the expense is on the manufacturer and retailer.

J. Peter Deeb

I think it is 10 years late but a welcome update. Only those people on regimented diets with caloric intake as a part of it were getting out the magnifying glasses to determine the serving size and number of calories. Now when you pour that jumbo bowl of cereal or drink that whole soda it will be easier to feel guilty about it! Will it change eating habits very much? I doubt it, but if it does influence some of us to be more sensible in our intake, it will prove to be the right thing to do.

CPGs should plan on some backlash initially but hopefully processed foods will have less added sugars and reflect more accurately the % of daily requirements as the scientists and marketers at these companies figure out how to make many processed foods healthier. Many major players are working on this already with less sugar, or healthier items like baked snacks added to their lineups.

W. Frank Dell II

Change can be good, but what are we achieving? The big change is a difference in portion size – what the government says should be a portion and what consumers actually eat. Making the label information closer to the real world should be good. My problem is, between 20% and 30% of consumers even read the label. So this change is for a small group of consumers.

The projected cost and benefits are not realistic. The projected cost of $2 billion may only cover the graphic arts cost. What about someone to calculate the new numbers? What about scrapping the old labels? What about someone to manage the process? For there to be savings, you first have to have someone read the label and make decisions with the information. What are they claiming, a reduction in healthcare cost?

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
3 years 8 months ago

In this expanding age of nutritional righteousness, the proposed changes to the FDA’s facts panel are quite appropriate. The food industry should be supportive, but not if the change results in “big change” costs to the food industry.

Ken Lonyai

In principle, this is a good step in the right direction, but I don’t see it having much of a positive effect on health issues. The majority of prepared foods and branded food items can hardly claim to be nutritious. Most consumers, as well intentioned as they may be, have hardly a clue about what is healthy or not and buy unhealthy products anyway. Probably the number one fact shoppers will look at on these labels is calories, so if the calorie prominence drives shoppers away from a product, it’s more likely that a manufacturer will reformulate in a more unhealthy way to get the number down.

That said, the food manufacturers will likely fight this tooth and nail anyway, just as they are pouring millions into campaigns and lobbyists to prevent the American public from knowing their foods contain GMOs.

Ryan Mathews

The new panel comes closer to describing the nutritional value of what people are eating. That said, by the way, I’m not sure that alone will change as many American’s eating patterns as the First Lady hopes it will.

As to the second question, how can the industry object to these changes? It would be seen by the public as an attempt to “cover up” bad practices. What company wants to leap out ahead of the pack in terms of being in favor of confusing consumers?

Larry Negrich

The new format looks okay and could be helpful to some people looking to quickly scan labels for nutritional info. Why not take advantage of the revision and do a more complete job? For instance, the FDA is altering the serving size based on what people “actually” eat; then some factor of a person’s “actual” size/weight should be included in the related percentages. (Instead of being based on an average of 2,000 calorie daily diet.) And they require the percentages of carbs, fat, etc. based on the “Daily Value” but what about protein? If the are going to make it over, then make it complete.

Herb Sorensen

It doesn’t matter. Shoppers, en masse, don’t look at this stuff anyway. Another arm-waving exercise to reach a tiny slice of the market, and give Michelle Obama something to claim.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Let’s not forget that at the end of the day, buyers represent future customers as well. Unfortunately, this is another example of the marketer/customer interaction that has necessitated the involvement of a third party, namely, the public policy makers. No one is ever comfortable with rules imposed upon them by the government. However, this is what happens if the public policy makers feel the interaction is not fair or balanced.

Social media has shifted the control of the seller/buyer dyad in favor of the buyer. Consumers are more savvy today than ever and read labels. Let’s not trick them, but help them to better understand our offerings and product contents. The customer focused marketer will make the changes in advance of any government mandated rules.

Li McClelland
Li McClelland
3 years 8 months ago

“Unless you had a thesaurus, a microscope, a calculator or a degree in nutrition, you were out of luck,” said Michelle Obama at a White House event Thursday on deciphering the current label. “So you felt defeated, and you just went back to buying the same stuff.”

Really? Sounds a bit hyperbolic and patronizing to a lot of us who seem to somehow manage to get by day to day. That said, I have no problem with the new label except for the not insubstantial one-time cost to retool the labels for every consumable product sold in America, with very little way for anyone to measure the effectiveness or benefit of the new construct.

Jerome Schindler

Note to Michelle Obama – this format isn’t much different than the current one. The current one was based on a lot of consumer research done by the government. It was not designed by industry. Even the current serving sizes were determined by the government based on extensive data. If you need a thesaurus, a microscope, a calculator or a degree in nutrition to understand the current version, you won’t be any better off with the proposed one.

It is unfortunate if so many American’s are that stupid. Aside from updating serving sizes, maybe the money spent on these new label panels would be better spent on improving our schools. But I suspect the “avoid too much” and “get enough” version that FDA did not officially propose but included in the notice for comment is the one you and Michael Jacobson at CSPI are to die for.

[Want to stump a nutritionist? Ask for proof that orange juice is any better for you than Tang that has all that added sugar.] That said, I am sure the experts at FDA really appreciate all of your input. They are also no doubt eagerly awaiting comments from Oprah, Ellen and Barbra.

Alexander Rink
3 years 8 months ago
Contrary to some of the other comments here, I think this is an important change and definitely a move in the right direction for consumers. The changes play into a growing trend to healthy eating and living, as evidenced by the funding that is going into startups that track your nutrition and fitness such as MyFitnessPal ($18M in Aug 2013 from Kleiner Perkins and Accel Partners) and Fitbit ($43M in Aug 2013 from Softbank Capital, Qualcomm Ventures, SAP Ventures, Foundry Group, and True Ventures). Incidentally, MyFitnessPal, which enables users to track the number of calories they consume with all the nutritional elements shown on the label aggregated for each day, has over 50 million users! Making the label easier to read and understand, and including more useful information, highlights the importance of nutrition in the food that we eat. A number of specific items that I particularly like for helping guide consumers to healthy choices include increasing the size of the calorie count and serving size per container, highlighting the added sugars, and adding the Vitamin D and Potassium elements. Introducing the added sugars is particularly important given the rise of diabetes and obesity in North American society over the… Read more »
Warren Thayer

The government should be the consumer advocate, and so should the manufacturer and the retailer. Historically, this seems to be done rarely, as financial interests trump what’s good for people in many ways. This all brings to mind the warning notices that were put on cigarette packs years ago. That move came after a lot of fighting and lying and covering up by tobacco companies, but the word eventually got out.

With today’s internet-enabled communication available, the real truth gets out easier. I don’t think any manufacturer or retailer would be wise to protest something that is in the best health interests of the consumer. Companies that genuinely try to be the consumer advocate today often tend to do better financially. And companies that don’t, tend to get smacked by social media. I rather like that.

Lance Thornswood
The proposed labeling changes make a lot of sense and are long overdue. * More realistic serving sizes – FINALLY! Who eats 3/7 of a candy bar? For items like these, soft drinks, etc., it makes so much more sense to give people an honest label with no calculations required to figure out the nutritional content of that “lunch size” bag of chips that you’re going to eat in one sitting (even though it’s 3.25 servings, according to the present labeling) * Changes in fat information – Good to see percentage of daily value broken out by types of fats, but it seems like a concession to delete the calories from fat because it seems to be a useful reference point for people who are used to looking for calorie counts. * Revised daily values – Great idea since our eating patterns change, and we’re more knowledgeable about nutrition than the last time these labels were updated. As to the “enormous expense” to the food industry, this definitely seems like hyperbole. It would be one thing if manufacturers didn’t regularly update their packaging and this forced some massive manufacturing changeover, but the fact is that this packaging is in a… Read more »
Shep Hyken

Great changes that make the nutritional info clearer. That’s better for the consumer. Sure, the consumer has to know how to read the label, but overall it is a better label. Should the food industry and retailers support it? Absolutely! Why wouldn’t they, unless they have something to be concerned about.

So many times people aren’t sure how to read the label. Sometimes they misread the label. bottom line, this is better for consumer.

Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper
3 years 8 months ago

Any move to provide better information is good. Processed sugar is one of the main ingredients to an unhealthy diet. Saturated fats, specifically trans fats, the worst of all fats, partially hydrogenated oils are allowed to be listed as “0%” as long as the food contains .5 gm or less per serving. That itself is extremely misleading and, in my opinion, irresponsible on part of the manufacturers.

Generally, consumers who are into fitness and adults who are better educated are more likely to read the labels and process the information. The problem is that any labeling changes won’t affect those who need it the most – the poorer and uneducated. If enough consumers would stop buying high sugar content foods (such as regular soda) manufacturers would have to change for the better. We’re not there yet, not close.

I do agree with Michelle Obama’s initiatives and efforts. Education, though, begins at home with responsible parents; the school system should reinforce healthy habits.


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