Saturday, August 24, 2019

Retrospective #189: The New Nutrition Facts Labels

My feed to Jimmy Moore’s Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb blog recently brought me a piece about the proposed new Nutrition Facts labels announced by first lady Michelle Obama at a White House press conference. It looked interesting, so I Googled the New York Times’ story on it. There are four major changes in the draft proposal.
1) The calorie count per serving will be displayed more prominently. That’s a good thing, 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 components (LDL, HDL and triglycerides) matter more than the total. So it is with calories.
2) “Added sugar” (from external sources not naturally found in the food) will be listed separately. This is a good first step, and it may have the effect of having food manufacturers lower the amount of added sugar in processed foods. It should make people 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 sugar “added sugar” or an essential ingredient in the basic recipe for bread? We’ll have to wait and see.
Of course, this change will not address nor change 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. Both “natural sugars” and “added sugars” will have the same effect on your blood glucose level. “So, what difference, at this point, does it make?” (Clinton/Benghazi reference; hehe).
Anyway, 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. Except for the trans fat change, enacted in 2002 that took effect in 2006, it’s been about 20 years since the last major changes.
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.” 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 favored carbohydrates, which includes sugars. Now, with the seeming shift from vilifying all fats to vilifying “added sugars,” the USDA/HHS is “turning the Titanic,” first addressed here by me in an eponymous column in 2011.
Regrettably, the USDA/HHS still lumps dietary cholesterol and saturated (good) fat and artificial trans (bad) fats together on the label and do not require that unsaturated fats (especially polyunsaturated) be listed on the label. They frequently are, but they, unlike cholesterol and saturated 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?
Finally, and most importantly, it is regrettable that this proposal is still based on the same macronutrient recommendations that have also long been outdated on the Nutrition Facts label: 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 Nutrition Facts label on it, wouldn’t we already be healthier? In the meantime, it is eerily scary but accurate, I think, to view these label changes as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while our nation’s state of health continues to sink.

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