The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed the first significant changes to nutrition labels in over 20 years. We break down 5 key questions about the updated label, it's history, and what it all means.
Who Reads Nutrition Labels?
If you are under the age of 68 and don't read nutrition labels, you're in the majority. A 2014 USDA study found that just 42% of aduts between the ages of 29 and 68 looked at nutrition labels "most or all of the time" while shopping. The study also found our elders to be a bit wiser or perhaps just more cautious, as people over age 68 read the labels 57% of the time. Both demographics are on the rise since 2007, up from 34% and 51% respectively. With more and more people reading these labels, this is a great time to make them easier to understand and more meaningful.
Why Do We Need Them?
Studies have shown that people who read nutrition labels are healthier. Or maybe healthier people just read labels? What we do know is that the U.S. has an obesity problem of epic proportions.
“To remain relevant, the FDA’s newly proposed Nutrition Facts label incorporates the latest in nutrition science as more has been learned about the connection between what we eat and the development of serious chronic diseases impacting millions of Americans.” – FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 78 million American adults, or 1 in 3, are obese. The problem is not just limited to adults, 17% of children and young adults ages 6 to 18 are also obese, and 14% of children ages 2 to 5. The nutrition label update is aimed at improving eating habits and fighting the obesity epidemic at the source. Consider the shocking annual costs of obesity in this country:
$190 billion in added medical costs, per year, addressing obesity-related problems. That's almost 21% of total annual health care costs in the U.S. This number is projected to rise to around $260 billion in the next 16 years.
$164 billion is the estimated amount employers are losing due to decreased productivity due to employees' obesity-related issues. This number is projected to rise to a whopping $580 billion in the next 16 years.
$6.4 billion is lost every year due to employees who miss work as a result of obesity-related issues.
$62 billion is the amount of Medicare and Medicade funds spent every year on obesity-related costs.
$3.4 billion is spent every year on the extra fuel cars needed to propel larger Americans. If we weighed the same as we did in 1960, we'd burn 938 million gallons less.
$1 billion is spent by airlines as they consume an extra 350 million gallons of fuel flying obese Americans.
$14 billion is the annual cost of childhood obesity in the U.S.
Obesity amongst adults is getting worse. As recently as 1995, Colorado had the nations lowest obesity percentage, effecting just under 14% of it's residents. That same year, Mississippi was the worst offender with about a 19% obesity percentage. Fast forward to 2013, and Colorado has jumped to nearly 21%, yet still remains the "fittest state", even though they are now worse than the "worst state" of 20 years ago. In fact, before 1980 there was not a single state with an obesity rate above 15%. As of 2013 there is not a single state with an obesity rate below 20%, and 41 states now have an obesity rate of at least 25%! Louisiana and Mississippi are neck and neck for the highest obesity rating at 34.7% and 34.6% respectively.
Where did they come from?
It's been more than two decades since nutrition labels were updated, and the government rightly feels the existing label does not reflect our current eating habits. Up until the late 1960s, most foods had no nutritional information at all listed on their packaging. Most meals at that time were prepared at home with fresh ingredients, and there was little demand for the information. With the proliferation of processed foods, people started to wonder what they were eating, and our government held a conference of nutrition and food makers in 1969 which resulted in voluntary labeling. 21 years later the FDA mandated nutrition labels for the majority of prepared and packaged foods. In 1993 basic calorie counts and fat grams became standard.
There are four significant changes being proposed by the FDA for modernizing nutrition labels; specifically the way calories, serving sizes, added sugars, and daily values are communicated.
Calories: With the proposed redesign, you won't be squinting to find the calories, as the new font size is nearly 400% larger than the outgoing version. Why this matters: Total daily calories is the most straightforward and simple way to watch what you eat and make healthier choices, if you're counting.
Serving Sizes: Bigger people, bigger bites? Or at least bigger portions. The government argues that no one eats one half-cup of ice cream, so labeling that as a "serving size" is no longer accurate. The change is expected to impact about 17% of currently listed serving sizes. Why this matters: Unrealistic serving sizes add a layer of confusion between consumers and good eating habits. Determining the amount of calories will be easier if a listed serving size is closer to reality and requires less arithmetic to discover.
Added Sugars: Sugar is already listed on nutritional labels, but nutritionists have long sounded the alarm about the difference between naturally occuring sugars and those sweet extra helpings manufacturers have been adding. Why this matters: By listing added sugars the FDA is giving consumers a vital piece of information about the food they're eating. Is it naturally sweetened, or artificialy packed with the added, extra sugar consumers have long been trying to avoid?
Daily Values: Nutrients like sodium, dietary fiber, and Vitamin D are facing revised numbers. Listing amounts of Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium will be required. Why this matters: Modern research has made it easier to determine which nutrients we need, generally as people and specifically as Americans. We're not getting enough Vitamin D (good for bone health) and potassium (keeps blood pressure within healthy limits).
When will this happen?
Don't expect to see a flood of new nutrition labels in your local grocery store before 2018. These changes are simply proposals right now. With it's February 27th announcement, the FDA has opened a 90-day comment period or "public review". Members of the public and experts are invited to provide feedback which will be followed by the FDA's final ruling. The goverment hopes to complete the revisions and finalize it's proposal within a year. After that, food manufacturers will have two years, and possibly more, to fully implement them.
Overall, these changes are positive and practical, aimed at helping consumers make better eating choices as the nation faces and obesity epidemic. Nutrition advocates are on board, though some would still prefer for nutrition labels to appear on the front of packaging, it seems all the other key issues have been addressed. The final product should be rolled out in the next 12 months, and is expected to cost food companies around $2 billion to change over.