On May 27, 2016, the FDA finalized a new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods which will emphasize information such as serving sizes, number of calories per serving and a listing of “added sugars.”
The label is going to be mandatory on Jan. 1, 2020 for food manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual sales, while other manufacturers have until Jan.1, 2021 to comply with the new requirements.
The FDA officials said the details on the labels will reflect on new scientific information linking diet and chronic diseases such as heart disease and obesity.
Dr. Cary Kreutzer, associate clinical professor and registered dietitian, said it is a big win when it comes to the advancement of health regulations in the country.
“There has been this constant push [and] pull between the food companies that produce the food and the researchers and scientists who deal with people’s everyday health," Kreutzer said. "The industry is, for the most part, not pro-label because it’s extra money for them and requires them to disclose information that they may not want to share.”
A critical part of the new Nutrition Facts label is the listing of different types of sugars in the food.
Manufacturers won’t be able to hide extra sugar such as high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, corn sweetener, turbinado, syrup, honey or fruit juice concentrates. For example, a regular can of soda will now reveal that one serving contains 65 grams of sugar, which is 130 percent of a daily dose of sugar.
“High fructose corn syrup is a major culprit for obesity and diabetes. The other big scary as a non-alcoholic fatty liver disease that we now are seeing in children, and children never had nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition where extra fat accumulates in liver cells, without alcohol,” said Kreutzer.
According to a report by Chemical and Engineering News, food companies are trying to lower sugar levels, and avoid cringe-worthy food labels, by replacing these sugars with artificial and synthetic sweeteners. They predict that consumers will be consuming a lot more artificial sweeteners.
Robert Girandola, associate professor of kinesiology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said he is concerned about the use of artificial sweeteners in foods.
“I would take regular sugar over certain sugar substitutes, like aspartame and sucralose, any day of the week. A lot of them are pretty safe but the other ones can cause big problems and complications. Just because the FDA approves them doesn’t mean they’re okay,” Girandola said.
The increased transparency in sugar content and the types of sugar used in a food items is still a step in a positive direction according to Girandola.
“Companies have always been manipulative with the food labeling and could get away with it," he said. "This change definitely goes a long way in them being truthful about what people are going to be eating and drinking.”
However, the effectiveness of food labels depends on how many people actually read them. In a survey conducted in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with 1,800 Americans between ages 25-36, only 31 percent said they read Nutrition Facts labels “frequently.”
Girandola said most people don’t pay attention to the details on the labels and they focus on the main headlines.
“When you go shopping and you watch people, you’ll see that they rarely look at the ingredient list because it’s generally printed in small print,” he said.
Simplification of the food label and limiting the amount of information is a viable solution to this problem, according to Kreutzer, who teaches low-income families about how to read food labels in an obesity program she runs at a children’s hospital.
“Someone with lower literacy is not even going to look at labels because it makes them uncomfortable. My feeling is that some of that is that it’s just too much information and they don’t know what they’re looking at or even how to look at it. So, a key component is increasing health literacy,” she said.
Although the new version of the Nutrition Facts label is a step forward in making the country healthier, Girandola said a lot more can be done. In addition to raising awareness about nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, he hopes to see people moving and exercising more.