Food labels: what RDs would change

Food labels: I love that we have them; I hate how they’re set up.  And I’m not alone.  I polled some of my RD* colleagues recently, posing this question: “If you could wave a magic wand at food labels, what would you change?”  The magic wand part is key, because of course RDs don’t control food labels.  Federal bureaucrats do, with input from industry, consumer groups, people with an axe to grind and the occasional nutrition expert.  After the inevitable compromising, we get the current situation.

So what changes did my fellow RDs suggest?

1. Do something about “natural”.  It’s too vague.

“Natural” is planted on the front of packages, because it sounds so healthy and unprocessed.  Of course, when you get right down to it, sugar is “natural”.  So it butter.  Or lard.  Or salt.  So natural says nothing about nutrition. But many food manufacturers are actually careful about documenting where ingredients come from before they put “natural” on the label.  They risk losing credibility if some ingredient is found to be artificial.  An official set of rules for use of “natural” on a label would help, but policing this could be very complicated.  And given the sugar-butter-salt issue, natural will never equate with healthy anyway.

2. Call it “portion size”; call it “serving size” – it’s on the nutrition facts panel, in tiny print, at the top.  If you’ve never noticed, you’re probably not alone.  The nutrition facts like calories and protein refer to one serving, not the whole container.  My colleagues had lots of concerns about labeling of portion sizes.  Suggestions for improvement included:

  • make the description of the serving size more prominent
  • make the number of servings per package more prominent
  • make the portion size reflect what people actually eat, not what some marketing exec thinks will make the calories look OK.  Take potato chips.  Labeling one “serving” as 10 chips makes the calories and fat look not-so-bad.  But who eats just 10 chips?  Who even counts?  Health halo foods are guilty of this portion manipulation too.  Check out the handy 16 oz bottle of Odwalla fruit smoothie.  One portion is half the bottle, not the whole bottle.

Mandating better label rules for portion size and number of servings would not be that difficult.  Make the font size bigger.  Put those two facts in a separate box, maybe in a distinct color, above the nutrition facts.  Mission accomplished.

3. Lots of RDs, including myself, want to change the way “sugars” are described.  Public misunderstanding about “sugars” is rampant.  Right now, all sugars are lumped together, whether they are naturally occurring, like the milk sugar lactose or sugars in fruit and vegetables, or added, like sugar in ice cream, cookies, sweetened cereals and so forth.  And this makes for huge misunderstandings, when consumers think All Sugar = Bad.  We nutrition professionals would like to see added sugars separated out from naturally occurring sugars.  That wouldn’t be hard to calculate, since companies already list all those sugar ingredients separately.  They know how much sugar is added to their recipes.

And speaking of all those sugar ingredients, another excellent suggestion was to force food manufacturers to lump all sweeteners together on the ingredients list, under “sugars”.  For a lot of products, this change would put “sugars” first on the ingredients list, rather than allow manufacturers to list sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, dextrose, honey, maple syrup, malt syrup and other sweeteners separately, all spread out lower down on the list, so you don’t get the full impact of how much added sugar is in your food.

4. The use of health claims on labels was also criticized, and some RDs suggested removing them entirely, because they’re too misleading.  Certain claims, such as “supports heart health”, are OK, subject to rules based on nutrition research.  What’s not regulated are a simple ingredient statements like “contains omega-3”.  Assuming the food does have some smidgen of omega-3 thrown in, that statement is OK.  But consumers have absolutely no idea if the amount is even meaningful.  You may buy the product based on all the buzz about omega-3.  I’d like to see mandatory documentation of amounts, whenever a Health Halo ingredient is listed on the front of the label.  Given industry pressure, eliminating all health claims is unlikely.  It’s good for marketing.  At some point, companies might start policing themselves, as consumers get frustrated with health claim clutter on labels and tune it all out.

6. Fix the trans fat loophole.  Right now, if a serving of a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, the label can say “0 grams of trans fat”.  In other words, your food could actually contain 0.49 grams, but be called zero.  This is a source of frustration to many nutrition professionals, not to mention consumers who are trying to avoid trans fats, due to concerns about heart disease.  Recommendations for change include: just list the trans fats, even if it’s 0.1 gram; change the maximum to 0.2 instead of 0.5 grams.

These were the big issues for my colleagues and myself.  There are certainly other possible improvements for nutrition labels, but for now we’re stuck with the current system.

*Registered Dietitian, nutrition expert.

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