We’re Getting New Food Labels and Big Food Hates Them. Here’s Why
For the first time in more than twenty years, the nutritional labels on food packaging are getting an update. Some of the changes are dramatic. Some are small. Manufacturers have till 2018 to actually roll out the new labels. But Big Food, to put it lightly, is having a conniption fit.
I’m usually the last person to pat the FDA on the back. But in this case, I think they’ve actually done something right. The changes drop some of the less useful information and add things that—if we pay attention—might make a real difference in how we eat. This includes removing the listing of calories from fat. This is a step in the right direction, though the number of grams of different types of fat will still appear.
The new labels will also include a Daily Value percentage for vitamin D and potassium. Deficiencies in both are common, so this is encouraging. For years, Big Medicine denied that vitamin D deficiency was a problem. But as it’s increasingly been linked to many chronic diseases, this attitude has slowly changed. And though the RDA for vitamin D is still too low according to many experts, the new label requirement is a good first step.
Labels will no longer have to note the amount of vitamins C or A they contain, though manufacturers can list them voluntarily. This may or may not be bad. Actual deficiencies in either vitamin are rare. Removing the “good source of vitamin C” hype from sugary juice labels would be a good thing. However, since juice manufacturers can voluntarily list vitamin C that might not happen.
Food manufacturers will also have list the calories not just in a “serving” but in the whole container. And “serving size” will be updated to amounts that are more in line with what people really eat. (Who really eats only 15 potato chips, or drinks just half of a 20-ounce soda after all?)
But there is one thing that is an absolute triumph for proponents of real healthful eating: the new labels will add a Daily Value (which shouldn’t be exceeded) for sugar. And more importantly, products will have to openly list the amount of added sugar in the product.
The world of Big Food is absolutely losing its mind over this requirement. They’re fighting it tooth and nail. They’re bombarding the FDA with letters and bogus survey results telling them it’s a bad idea. Their reason? They claim the average consumer is just too dumb to understand the difference between natural sugar and added sugar.
Big Food claims we’re too stupid to understand labels
Here’s how the new labels will work: First, they’ll have two different columns for servings. One column will list the Daily Values—including calories and amount of sugar, fat and salt—for a single serving. The other column will list the amounts in the entire package. And the “serving size” will be more in proportion to how much of a food people actually eat in one sitting.
For instance, with current labeling a small lunch-sized bag of potato chips can claim that it’s two servings. But let’s be honest. Very few people actually eat only half the bag. A 20-ounce soda, obviously designed to be drunk in one sitting, can claim that it’s two servings also. And the way the labels are currently designed makes it easy to distract us from what a serving really is—“calories” is listed in big, bold text while “serving size” is in small, light print.
Technically the label is honest. It does give the number of calories in a serving. But in practice, it’s all too easy to miss what a “serving” is for smaller packages and assume the calories etc are for the contents of the whole package. The new labels will make this obvious. Hopefully they will bring home to us just how very much we do eat, and prompt us to cut back.
The new label design will also break sugar down just as the old labels broke down fat, with total sugar followed by an indented line listing the amount of added sugar. This will allow us to see just how much sugar is added to most of our food to keep us coming back for more. And this is the part that Big Food really doesn’t like. They claim that listing the added sugar will “just confuse people.”
They’re making all kinds of convoluted arguments about why they shouldn’t have to list added sugars separately. One argument is that we’ll assume products with more added sugar than natural sugar are less “healthy” than those with natural sugar alone, even when the total sugar is less. This argument falls flat for me—especially since the FDA is including fruit juice concentrates and the like used as ingredients in other products as added sugar. There are very few instances when a product will have more naturally-occurring sugar than a comparable one with added sugar.
They also claim that we’re likely to look at the “total sugar” and “added sugar” listings and add them together. This, they claim, will make us think that there’s more sugar in a product than there really is. This is a silly objection. We’ve done fine reading the fat content on labels all these years. We haven’t confused “total fat” with “saturated fat” so why would we suddenly get confused about sugar? And even if we did, can anyone really argue that choosing lower-sugar foods for any reason is a bad thing?
Big Food is REALLY afraid that we’re too smart
But the real problem Big Food has is this: They’re afraid that people may actually focus on the sugar content of products and choose whether to buy or not based on that. Courtney Gaine, the CEO of the Sugar Association, puts it bluntly:
"If they see a food that has higher amounts of added sugars, even if that food is healthy, say yogurt or cereal or oatmeal, they may be less likely to choose it.”
In other words, they’re afraid that we’ll see just how bad for us their products are. They’re afraid we’ll stop buying sugar-laden crap. They’re afraid that if we have two brands of the same food with different amounts of added sugar, we’ll do the smart thing and choose the lower-sugar product.
The new labels won’t hit the shelves till 2018, but in the meantime here’s what you can do:
Read labels thoroughly. Watch for sugar under all its many sneaky names including
- Maltose and anything else that ends in “-ose.”
- Anything with “syrup” in the name, including “brown rice syrup,” “agave syrup,” or “corn syrup solids.”
- Anything with “cane” in the name. This includes things like “dehydrated cane juice.”
- Anything other than straight fruit juice that contains fruit juice concentrate.
And make sure you check portion sizes if you’re counting calories or grams of sugar or salt. There’s a huge difference between 15 chips and a whole “snack size” bag.
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