Nutrition label update: A tweak or an overhaul?

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

“As soon as you make an item on the nutrition label bold, you are venturing into public policy, which was the challenge with the design initially,” said Burkey Belser, who designed the original nutrition label.
“As soon as you make an item on the nutrition label bold, you are venturing into public policy, which was the challenge with the design initially,” said Burkey Belser, who designed the original nutrition label.

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On Thursday the Obama administration unveiled the changes that the Food and Drug Administration drafted to the nutrition facts panel (see what the FDA is proposing here). In anticipation of the announcement, the Center for Science in the Public Interest convened a panel of consumer groups, industry experts and the designer of the original Nutrition Facts label to discuss how the label might be revised. 

CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said that the FDA will likely address already fairly accepted changes such as more prominent labeling of calories and removing the much-maligned 'calories from fat' designation.

(Read the full text of the FDA proposal here​.)

He also expects trans fats will likely be removed from labels—given that the industry already took preemptive action to phase them out over the last decade ahead of the FDA’s proposal last month to phase out partially hydrogenated oils. Other less certain modifications have to do with vaguer areas such as serving sizes and added sugars, as well as front-of-pack claims.

As soon as you make an ingredient bold, you are venturing into public policy

Burkey Belser, principal of Greenfield-Belser, who designed the original nutrition label, noted that the challenge of designing (and changing) nutrition labels lies with the fact that the nutrition labels combine science and public policy.

“As soon as you make an item on the nutrition label bold, you are venturing into public policy, which was the challenge with the design initially,” ​Belser said. “We were trying to combine, at the highest levels, FDA public policy with science. How do we make it approachable and easy to understand?”

Part of the reason nutrition labels are so widely accepted now is because of their ubiquity, which makes significant changes difficult. “Familiarity breeds favorability. The more I see something, more I’m inclined to like it. It’s a brand issue that over time has resulted in this iconic thing that appears on back of every piece of food out there. It’s a kind of loved icon. So I’d suggest to the FDA, mess with that at your peril.”

FDA: Overhaul the nutrition label ‘at your peril’; consumers prefer the familiar

Darren Seifer, food & beverage industry analyst at the NPD Group, echoed this sentiment, noting that decades worth of consumer surveys have revealed that although consumer concerns change over time (from cholesterol in the 1980s to sugar today), many look for familiarity when embracing new health concepts.

“Right now consumers have elevated concerns around sugar, which started around the time of the low-carb phase,”​ Seifer said.

“They’re also looking for protein more often. Often when there’s news or buzz in the industry, it draws attention to certain items, but often it’s to derivations, not new products. Take Greek yogurt. It’s just yogurt. Consumers are glomming on because there’s a resemblance to something they’ve been doing all along.”

Indeed, he added that labels shouldn’t be drastically changed, as the resulting confusion may outweigh any benefits.

“Take the total fat line compared to when they break it out to poly- or monounsaturated fat—far fewer people are looking at that breakdown. When it comes to good or bad fat, consumers aren’t as educated. Nutritionists may know this like the back of their hand, but consumers don’t live and breathe nutrition. They need simple education to figure out if fat I’m going to consume is worthwhile or something I need to avoid.”


Consumers don’t live and breathe nutrition, need simple education to know what to avoid

Jane Andrews, RD, corporate nutrition manager at Wegmans Food Market, also recommended tweaks rather than an overhaul of nutrition labels, arguing that both consumers and the food industry would reject massive changes.

“Consumers do get upset when you change their navigational ways. If we move bananas from one position to another in the store, consumers scream at us.”

From the brand and retailer perspectives, which work with upwards of hundreds of product packages at a given time—“5,559 for Wegmans, at last count”—​any labeling changes constitute a monumental job. “It’s a huge amount of work for us and costly. As much as possible, we’d like the FDA to put all changes in the same timeframe and give us a significant grace period. We are constantly changing product.”

Front of pack callouts? Warnings in red? Not likely, label designer says

One suggested way to help consumers quickly understand how good or bad a food is was to add front-of-pack symbols to indicate the overall nutritional value of the food, which has been suggested as part of the 2013 Food Labeling Modernization Act and which some manufacturers are already doing voluntarily. Another idea floated by panelists was calling out certain percentages with red ink (such as high or low designations for fiber or sugar).

But color presents cost issues, Belser noted. “Among the 35 designs we tried, we did try color. It got jettisoned ultimately because of the added cost to manufacturers to put a color on package that they wouldn’t normally have,” ​he said. “It’s unlikely we’ll see color added, not that it couldn’t help.”

Addressing sodium serving size vagaries

Another area of concern raised by many in the nutrition community is whether and how much the FDA will change sodium intake recommendations, which are currently 2400 mg per day.

“If we could cut sodium levels in half, we could save 100,000 lives per year. That’s extraordinarily important,”​ Jacobson said. “What will the FDA propose as the recommended daily intake? The food industry wouldn’t mind if the FDA changed it to 2300, which the Institute of Medicine recommended as the limit for half thepopulation. But more than half the population should try to get down to 1500, which the American Heart Association and CSPI support.”

Also on CSPI’s wish list, Jacobson noted, was an overhaul of serving sizes. “This muffin,”​ he said, holding up an individually wrapped muffin, “which looks like one serving to me, the label says two servings—‘share with a friend,’ he said. “That’s a joke. I hope the FDA figures out a way to solve this large serving size problem.”


No way to test for added sugars; has to be by formulation

Another label item to keep an eye on is added sugars, which have raised the ire of many in the nutrition community. “Right now, the label says total sugars. So when you look at your yogurt package you can’t tell how much is added and how much comes from milk,” ​Jacobson said. “Nutritionists don’t give a hoot about sugars from fruit or vegetables—it’s added sugar they care about. So we’ve asked the FDA to add a line for it.”

But Andrews said she’d be surprised if the FDA addressed added sugars given the complexity of measuring them, since for example, white sugar and white flour both cause a spike in blood sugar.

I’d be surprised if the FDA adds added sugar because no way to test for it. It has to be by formulation. What I emphasize to shoppers is to look at the ingredient statement. The things in highest quantity are foremost. From that you can begin to tell if you have something full of the goodness of fruit or cane sugar, HFCS, honey, whatever.”

Clarity important for all consumers; simplicity factored into original nutrition labels

Above all, nutrition labels should help consumers make quick, informed decisions about healthy options, especially when a huge swath of the US population is on a tighter budget (namely, 37 million on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and another 10 million using the Women Infants and Children program), said chef Gregory Silverman, director of national partnerships for Share Our Strength.

“We help shoppers in dire straits, on tight budgets, or who are using the SNAP or WIC programs, by helping them use the choices they can make in grocery store to make healthy, affordable, delicious choices,” he said. 

In that sense, clarity, ease of understanding and simplicity are most important. Indeed, Belsey noted that literacy and numeracy factored heavily into the label’s original design.

“We learned that drama between lines and weights of type would ease reading. We also eliminated punctuation and grammatical aids, so there is nothing in there to slow the reader down. We tried charts and other graphical elements, which proved to be inherently difficult to read, so we eliminated them. The ultimate result was always paring away, not adding.”

Silverman added: “Nutrition labels are about streamlining readability and giving people choice. No matter where they are, they have a choice. We want to make the healthy choices easy.”

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