Proposals don't consider a product's overall nutritional value, says professor

Former FDA commissioner: Nutrition Facts overhaul doesn’t go far enough

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Professor Kessler: 'To the harried shopper hoping to make some healthy choices, this label would offer a quick way of identifying high-calorie, obesity-inducing food'
Professor Kessler: 'To the harried shopper hoping to make some healthy choices, this label would offer a quick way of identifying high-calorie, obesity-inducing food'

Related tags Fda Nutrition

FDA proposals to overhaul the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels are “strong” and “likely to make an important contribution”, says former FDA commissioner David Kessler, M.D. “But I believe they don't go far enough.”

Among other things [click HERE​ to read the proposals in full], the FDA proposes including a listing for 'added sugar', making calories more prominent, removing 'calories from fat' and adding levels of vitamin D and potassium.

However, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine​ (click HERE​), Dr Kessler - a professor of pediatrics, epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco - says he would like to see something far more radical on the front of pack.

What the proposals don't do is consider a product's overall nutritional value.There is nothing in the new framework that actively encourages consumers to purchase food rich in the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are rightfully considered ‘real food’.

“Instead, the focus is on specific nutrients — an emphasis that gives food companies an incentive to fortify their products so they can make claims such as ‘added fiber’ or to produce sugar-laden foods that can be labeled ‘low fat’.”

The FDA needs a larger strategy to influence the food environment

Beyond refreshing the Nutrition Facts label, he argues, the FDA should look again at front-of-pack labeling: “I believe that the FDA needs a larger strategy to influence the food environment and to support the admonishment based on the Dietary Guidelines to make half your plate fruits and vegetables.”

While it has traditionally been the case that “regulated labeling [is] confined to the side or back of a package”, ​he says, “There is no reason that acceptance should stand.

“Indeed, the Institute of Medicine and the FDA have worked together in the past to develop some tough front-of-package proposals, but these efforts stalled after a self-protective industry offered a paler voluntary labeling strategy known as Facts Up Front.”

The goal should be to encourage the sale and consumption of products full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

A “stronger approach”, ​claims Dr Kessler, would require that the top three ingredients, the calorie count, and the number of additional ingredients be listed on the front of every package in bold, easy-to-read type.

“To the harried shopper hoping to make some healthy choices, it would offer a quick way of identifying high-calorie, obesity-inducing food and of finding healthier alternatives. Because the number of ingredients in a product often reflects the substitution of chemical additives for the flavor of real food, labels reading “+5 more ingredients” or “+20 more ingredients” would be informative shorthand.”

Whatever form the new regulations ultimately take, says Kessler: “Their goal should be to encourage the sale and consumption of products full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, rather than those loaded with little more than fat, sugar, and salt.”

An undifferentiated list of nutrients…

Some other groups commenting on the FDA’s proposed changes in the docket (click HERE​ to read all the comments) also express concerns that the FDA’s proposed label doesn’t attempt to communicate the healthfulness or otherwise of a product, although other commentators stress that this is not its primary purpose.

Nutrition facts panel-changes
Out with the old, in with the new?

For example, the Behavioral Science and Regulation Group (a collection of students and fellows at Harvard’s Law, Kennedy, and Business Schools), says: “Below the serving size and calorie information, the proposed label includes an undifferentiated list of nutrients… without providing any indication to consumers of the healthfulness of the nutrient.  

Many consumers may not know without further education whether, for example, insoluble fiber is healthful​,” says the group.

Ocean Spray: Listing ‘added sugar’ on Nutrition Facts label will make cranberries look unhealthy

However, the proposal to include a line listing 'added sugar' on the label generates the most debate.

Most commentators welcome the move - including Dr Kessler, who says the FDA should go further and included a daily value for added sugar - but others are not so happy.

Cranberry giant Ocean Spray, for example, says it is “deeply concerned​” that listing added sugar would unfairly discriminate against cranberry products - which are nutrient dense, but tart, and typically require some added sugar to improve palatability.


In a comment in the docket (click HERE​) on the proposed changes, the firm says: “Under the FDA proposal, cranberry products would be considered ‘unhealthy’ based solely on their added sugar content, ignoring the fruit’s dense nutrients, well-documented health benefits and contribution to fruit intake in the diet.

“Requiring added sugar labeling may mislead consumers to believe that nutrient dense foods such as cranberries with all of their proven health benefits are somehow less nutritious than foods with the same amount of naturally occurring sugar.”

Click HERE​ to read the FDA proposals. 

Click HERE​ to read about Facts up Front.   


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Sugar white death

Posted by suzannast,

We will fight until we have no breath left for sugar! We have to realize that sugar is not a natural substance - it is killing us . It does not matter how many nutrients there are in food if the sugar level is too high it will undermine our health. People have a right to know and make a choice to use sugar or not . We need to make the choice clear on the label. We need to gradually change our pallet , We love sweet food and we need to change. If we do not we will be very sick and bankrupt our medical system. We are addicted to sugar - yes addicted like addicted to caffeine , alcohol and nicotine! We need to go through withdrawal and taste what real food is like - some times bitter some times sour ! And thank God some times sweet - naturally sweet (with fiber and cofactors that minimize the impact) - these foods we limit. We are so focused on sweet we actually hybridize our foods over the years so they get sweeter ( result less antioxidants that are usually bitter by their nature)! Manufacturers need to get busy and change their formulas gradually so people adjust - add good sugar alternatives like erythritol to unrefined sugar - reduce calories . Be ahead of the game - you will then survive.

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Tunnel Vision

Posted by K. Grossmann,

What is really sad is that the commenter below doesn't seem to care at all that the kind of labeling that "knocks consumers over the head"-- "will drive hundreds of companies out of business". Hmmm ... wouldn't that drive up unemployment and food costs even more, ultimately forcing the much-worried-about consumer to resort to cheaper, usually more calorie and fat laden foods, to survive. It amazes me that intelligent people can think that ANY kind of labeling is going to stop someone from enjoying their chips, crackers, cake, candy, cheese, cold cuts, and/or convenience foods. Many do not focus on trying to live forever. Many simply do not have time for the luxury of food preparation. They want to enjoy what they like and will choose it no matter what a label says. Stop trying to force what's right for you onto everyone else. Why not suggest moderation? The cost to manufacturers to replace all existing labels and their nutrition software will be high and will be passed on to the consumer. Food is already extremely expensive! Ultimately, those that care to read labels, do, and will. Those that don't, won't, no matter the type size, what words go where, etc. etc.

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Kudos to Dr Kessler

Posted by Jim Pintner CRC,

I applaud Dr Kessler for saying what needed to be said. Without using his ideas, the labels won't be much more health inducing than they are now. The really sad truth is that you have to absolutely knock consumers over the head with the obvious and then define it. His label does just that. The problem is, almost no processed foods producer in their right mind will use this format because it's like putting the warning on cigarettes that say "this product will kill you". Sorry Doc, but it's the truth. I wouldn't buy much of anything except fresh produce, dairy and meats because all the other stuff would just sound illogical to eat. I've been a vegan, and a certified research chef and product developer for 30 years, and I'm not exaggerating when I say, this would drive hundreds of companies out of business. If we had ready alternatives to the biggest offenders already in the pipeline it might be possible, but we don't. Maybe in the next iteration of the label format we can get it done, but not yet. What a sad commentary on our reality.

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