Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Nutrition Debate #189: The Proposed New F.D.A Nutrition Labels

My feed to Jimmy Moore’s Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb blog recently brought me this piece about the proposed new F.D.A Food labels to be announced by first lady Michelle Obama at a White House press conference later that day. It looked interesting, so I Googled and found the New York Times’ same-day coverage here. There are four major changes in the draft proposal.

1) The calorie count per serving will be displayed much more prominently. That’s a good thing, generally, but as Jimmy points out, total calories is about as useful as total cholesterol is in a blood test, which is “not very” or “not at all” for many. With cholesterol, the component parts (LDL, HDL and triglycerides) matter more than the total. So it is with total calories. A high calorie count is not bad if it is made up of the “right” (“good”) kind of fat. But here, the government hasn’t got it right yet, so it’s not going to make any sense to press this point with the powers-that-be yet.

2) “Added sugar” (from external sources not naturally found in the food) will be listed separately. This is a very good first step, and it may have the effect of having food manufacturers lower the amount of added sugar (as it has with trans fats) in processed foods. It will certainly make everyone more aware of how many foods have added sugars in them, and how much. But, after flour and water, sugar, in some form, is always the 3rd ingredient in a loaf of bread. Would the new labels consider this an “added sugar” or an essential ingredient in the basic recipe for bread? This topic is starting to get mainstream attention. People are looking for the sugar and finding it in astonishing quantities. Check out this story on NPR.

Of course, this change will not address the fact that a) a 12oz glass of Minute Maid orange juice has just as much “natural” sugar (36g) as a 12oz. regular Coke has “added” sugar (39g), and they are both equally “bad.” The ADA says that the juice is worth it because of the minerals and fiber, but hyperglycemia affects mineral balance in the body (of rats); or b) that virtually every other carbohydrate you eat will be quickly broken down by digestive enzymes to “simple sugars,” and they will have the same effect on your blood glucose level as either “natural sugars” or “added sugars.” So, what difference, at this point, does it make? Oops…My politics are showing. Check out this link to sugar in beverages at

Anyway, I think it is time to take advantage of the present and growing level of awareness about the amount of sugar we eat and capture the moment in these new food label changes. It’s been about 20 years since the last major changes (except for the trans fat change, enacted in 2002, that took effect in 2006).

3) Serving sizes will increase. This is a very good thing, for the food categories covered. The New York Times piece, however, says it will affect only “17% of the approximately 150 categories of packaged food,” according to the F.D.A. commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg. Well have to see what will change and what will not. Everyone agrees the present serving sizes are a joke and a charade, so this change is also long overdue. Examples given to the press included a) a serving size of ice cream will increase from ½ cup to 1 cup. That means those pint containers are meant for 2 people, folks. Don’t forget to share! Also, a muffin serving size will change from 2oz to 4oz, and a 20oz beverage will be just one serving. Two straws, anybody?

4) “Calories from fat” will be deleted. That’s a good thing. It singled out fat unfairly. It stigmatized fat and by contrast favored carbohydrates, which includes sugars. Now, with the seeming shift from vilifying all fats to vilifying “added sugars,” the F.D.A is continuing to “turn the Titanic,” first addressed by me in this column in 2011. In as many years, the F.D.A has also transitioned from the “food pyramid” to a “pyramid” of streamers (wedges) to “My Plate.” They (the government) still hasn’t got it right, but they are 1) trying to figure it out and 2) trying to figure out how to tell us (the consumers of food) and the food manufacturers, the public health establishment and the medical community, how and where they got it all wrong.

Regrettably, they still lump dietary cholesterol and saturated (good) fat and artificial trans (bad)fats together on the label and do not require that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats be listed on the label. They frequently are, but they, unlike cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat are not required. And regrettably, they do not require that quantities (e.g added sugar) be listed in measures with which Americans are familiar, i.e., teaspoons instead of grams. Did you know, for example, that a 12 oz Coke or 12oz glass of orange juice has the equivalent of 10 or 9 teaspoons of sugar in it, respectively?

And finally, although this is just a label change, I lament that this proposal is still based on the same old macronutrient proportions that have also long been outdated even on the government websites: 60% carbohydrates, 30% fat and 10% protein.  That’s 300 grams (1,200 calories) of carbohydrate a day, 50 grams (200 calories) of protein, and 67 grams (600 calories) of fat. If we are going to eat a healthier diet, isn’t that where the changes should begin? And, let’s face it, if we didn’t ever eat another packaged and processed food that had a food label on it, wouldn’t we already be healthier?
What do you think of the proposed food label changes? As Jimmy Moore says in his blog header, the “proposed food label changes need to focus on what really matters.” IMHO, there’s not much chance of that, but this isn’t a bad change. Maybe public comment will even make it better. Or maybe industry influence will make it worse. It’ll be interesting to see which.

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