Five Ways to Improve Nutrition Facts Label

March 09, 2010

Shoppers are more concerned and interested in the food they eat then ever before.

Shoppers are more concerned and interested in the food they eat then ever before. Part of it is simply learning about new and exciting tastes, and the other is all about the “fountain of youth.” We have figured out, especially those aging baby boomers who this year start turning 65, that the healthier we eat – the better we live. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently in the process of revamping Nutrition Facts labeling and has been cracking down consistently on food product claims as well as front-of-package labeling.

The Lempert Report recently reported on the N.G.A. and SupermarketGuru 2010 National Consumer Survey that found four out of 10 consumers find the availability of health information to be ‘very important’ when choosing a grocery store – this sheds light on the fact that consumers are experiencing a lack of trust and clarity when it comes to interpreting nutrition facts on their own. The lack of trust does not bode well when the majority of shoppers (51%), as found by the 2010 National Consumer Survey, are reading ingredient lists and scanning for preservatives or additives. The FDA recently reported on findings from a consumer survey and found that 54% of shoppers read labels the first time they buy a product, up 10% from 2002. With the majority of shoppers reading labels and an increase in reported confusion, The Lempert Report believes there are five key areas that will help consumers better understand the facts.

Realistic serving size
Check the labels. Two cookies, 10 pretzels and half of the container of your microwave lunch…those are suggested serving sizes? Have any of us actually stopped at a suggested serving size (or noticed it in the first place), and why would they pack two servings into an ‘individually’ portioned microwave lunch? Well, imagine what the calorie, sodium, fat and sugar content would amount to if all of the numbers on the nutrition facts were doubled. And on top of that, most people don’t fully understand portion size and would feel cheated if their microwavable lunch was half the size.

Posting realistic serving sizes, taking into consideration both how people eat and the packaging, is the way to go.

Sugar, Added vs. Natural
Nutrition Facts state the amount of total sugars per serving, but do not indicate whether the sugars are added, occur naturally, or are a combination of the two. Sugars are sugars (i.e., sugar, corn syrup, HFCS or honey) once it enters the body in terms of its caloric significance. But whether it’s naturally occurring or added is the actual game changer. The effect of consuming foods with naturally occurring sugars like fruit, vegetables, milk and grain products, is very different than added sugars, because sugars occurring in their natural state come packaged with the added benefits of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals that whole foods provide. Sometimes added sugars are empty calories and have no benefit to our health.  Nutrition facts should distinguish between the two.   

Zero Plus Zero Should Equal Zero
Since when did zero trans fats plus zero trans fats not equal zero?  Products containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fats, or other fats, or a whole host of other nutrients per serving are legally allowed to report that the product contains zero. But what happens when you eat more than one serving? The industry claims that these ‘free’ and zero claims are allowed when a food is free of a nutrient or if the amount is so small, and thus considered ‘dietetically trivial or physiologically insignificant.’ The amount is also believed to be physiologically insignificant even if a person eats several servings. Either reformulate or let consumers know what they are really eating.

Would You Like Some Caffeine With That?
There are various products, aside from coffee, colas, energy drinks or teas, that do in fact contain caffeine. There are many people who try to avoid the jolting foods, but as a consumer, these foods or beverages are almost impossible to identify. What about those double chocolate fudge brownies or those chocolate mocha chip cookies? If consumers knew how much caffeine was in the foods they were eating, they might restrict intake to certain times of the day as not to affect their mood or disrupt sleep habits. Caffeine labeling should be mandatory for all foods and beverages.

Interactions with Ingredients:
Many popular pharmaceutical drugs have side effects or can interfere with nutrient absorption or vice versa. Many prescription labels do carry warnings – but not the foods. Foods with high levels of these nutrients should include the interaction information on the label. This is similar to highlighting ingredients that may cause other reactions or side effects. Artificial colorings or flavorings are an example of such an ingredient, and with proper labeling an at risk shopper can determine at a glance whether or not a product is suitable for their dietary needs and concerns.

Overall, the idea is to cut the confusion and make it simple for consumers to choose foods that are appropriate for their dietary needs and health desires. Let’s hope the FDA keeps it simple as they overhaul the Nutrition Facts panel.