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Do you like the FDA’s new proposed food labels? Let me answer that for you.

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | February 28, 2014

The FDA has proposed a complete makeover for nutrition labels. Hooray! 

At the risk of supporting a government agency that usually frustrates the hell out of me, they’re pretty good recommendations–provided the food industry (or “Big Food”) doesn’t completely whittle them down during the 90-day public comment rodeo following the announcement.

Here’s a rundown of some of the sexier changes. I’ll put them in a larger, bold typeface because, apparently, the FDA feels that’s the only way we can absorb knowledge.

Calories and servings per container will be more prominent. Being bolded and underlined wasn’t enough. Now you’ll be able to read the calorie level of your Milk Duds from the moon.

Serving sizes will be adjusted to current eating habits. The new labels will acknowledge that nobody drinks 8-ounces of Coke or half a cup of ice cream in a sitting. This is the only change I don’t like. It pisses me off because 1. being pissed off is my business and 2. it feels like the FDA is pandering to America’s overindulgent eating habits. However, I do like a sister regulation that accompanies this change:

If you can eat or drink it all at once, the label must list the total calories in the container. Big Food loves to play serving size three-card monte, listing the calories et al in a “serving” of the product, but not the amount that’s actually in the container. The classic example are those 20-ounce bottles of soda, which lists the nutrition facts for an 8-ounce serving while only quietly mentioning that there are 2.5 servings in a container.

For the record, soda manufacturers aren’t the only charlatans to do this. Most “all-natural” juice producers like Naked and Odwalla list the calories for an 8-ounce serving on their 16-ounces bottles. When you slurp down your 100% Juice Guiltless Green Protein Awesome Antioxidant Earth First Peace Smoothie after hot yoga, you might be polishing off 400 calories in 3 gulps.

Now, products will need to feature both the suggested serving size nutrition facts and the nutrition facts for consuming the entire package off at once.

Vitamin D and Potassium amounts must be mentioned on the label. This is swell, considering Americans don’t get enough of either of these important micronutrients, but I don’t think it’s that huge of a game changer. Vitamin D, which is important for healthy bones among other things, occurs naturally in dairy, eggs, seafood and (sometimes) mushrooms. But when you find it in packaged goods, it’s usually fortified artificially. Personally, I think you’re better off seeking D from whole foods.

Potassium is an important electrolyte that helps maintain blood pressure and keeps kidneys healthy. To work properly, it needs to be balanced with sodium. We, as a nation, are terrible at this. It’s not just that we consume too much sodium; we also don’t consume enough potassium. Most of us live in a state of sodium/potassium imbalance. However, as is the case with vitamin D, if you’re looking to get adequate potassium from packaged goods, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Salt increases shelf live and ramps up flavor, so Big Food tends to cram it in everything it can.

If you want potassium, instead look to fresh veggies (especially leafy greens), beans and other legumes, fruit, and seafood.

Added sugars and natural sugars will have separate listings. I love, love, lovey love this one. If I could propose to this proposal, we’d be half way to Vegas by now. Thanks to the current trend of “sugar detoxes” and the media’s need to oversimplify, there’s a lot of monosaccharide misinformation floating around out there. People look at the “Sugars” line in their Nutrition Facts and assume they’re looking into a Gateway to Hell. Natural sugars are perfectly healthy. They occur in fruits, veggies, and whole grains. (Even the gluten-free ones, hipsters!)

The new labels will differentiate between these two sugars–which is scary for Big Food because it’ll make it a lot harder to hide the amount of processed sugar they dump into their products.

In the meantime, if you’re looking to differentiate between “good” and “bad” sugars. Here’s a hint. Read the ingredients. (I could get used to this larger font thing.)

  • The sooner an item appears in ingredient list, the more of it there is. If sugar is one of the first few items, that means there’s a lot of it. 
  • Sugar goes by a lot of names. Any ingredient that includes a word like “juice” or “syrup” is probably sugar in sheep’s clothing. Words ending in “ose” such as “dextrose” and “sucrose” and “maltose” are also sugar. Don’t be fooled! 
  • Lastly, keep in mind that manufacturers can use multiple types of added sugar. By splitting things up, these sugars drop down in the list. so read the entire ingredient list. If you see three or four different sugars, that’s still bad news. 

At first glance, it appears the FDA is primarily just dumbing down nutrition labels to suit our rapidly dwindling attention spans. (If only they could figure out a way to make the label twerk. Everyone would read a twerking label, right?) However, I want to believe that America has enough grey matter left so that our government doesn’t need to launch a multimillion dollar initiative just to help us read a 1″x 3″ box consisting of about 30 words that a 3rd grader could spell. (Except “cholesterol.” That silent “h” is tricky!)

That’s why I think there’s another obvious benefit to these proposed changes. They make it harder for Big Food to sneak added sugars and excess calories into our diets. I don’t say this too often, but yay, FDA!

Now please don’t wuss out and let Big Food water down your changes.

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