Thoughts on the Proposed Nutritional Label Changes

The announcement for updating the labeling of nutritional info came out a little while ago, and there was some discussion in social media, etc.  But I thought I'd make a few comments here on the blog.  

So here are the current and proposed labels:
I think the new labeling would be a definite improvement, but I think we can do better.  

The Good:

  • Calories are clear per serving.  While this seems to be a no-brainer, food manufacturers who break down serving size to disguise calories will be less able to do so.  My biggest peeve are canned items intended for single servings or two like soup.  Rules should not allow half servings!
  • Numbers down left column are much more eyeball friendly
  • Added Sugars:  I think this is good for everyone.  As an example, some sugar added to pasta sauces is a time honored cooking "trick".  There are also natural sugars in tomato sauce.  Itemizing would make picking sauces much simpler.

The Bad or Indifferent:

  • Protein is almost an after thought, and no %DV?
  • Vitamins and minerals will be changed from the highest content to a "get enough" list.  While it may be more important for some to "get enough" iron, this too much for others, and this method picks winners and losers.  When you have so many, I think the older form would be better.
  • Percentages of Daily Values are highlighted even more than before.  These are probably the least likely values to be used by consumers.
  • Itemizing so-called "bad fats" without itemizing the rest is ridiculous at this point.  It demonizes saturated fat needlessly while failing to highlight the beneficial fat content of other foods (MUFA and O3)
  • Sodium and Cholesterol as special constituents.  I guess this is always going to be, but perhaps a listing under special considerations and include a few other things some need to avoid/limit would be more meaningful.  

My Suggestion:  

Let me say I've already had some other thoughts here, they waste too much space being redundant at the top.  They could put the calories, serving size and servings per container in a square on the left side and put the macro pie chart on the right on top.  That works ;-) 
Forgive the crude repetition on the bottom there and also
a total lack of effort to make up numbers in the left column  

Eliminate %DV Entirely:  

For starters, you cannot guide an overall diet at the individual food label level.  Especially if you want to encourage including foods without labels!    Give people the clear information to use in their overall plan.   

Let's assume that I actually am that 2000 cal/day person, and my ideal diet is the usual target 15% protein, 30% fat, 55% carb.  Do you know anyone who looks at a label and says "oh I've had 30% of my saturated fat for the day, and 25% of my carbs, make mental note"?  No.  Those who are looking at labels for useful information are going to be tracking grams of this or that and how those fit into targets for their individual needs.

Also ... because math:

Relatively few people actually consume 2000 calories per day, even if we accept that this might be an average intake.  Why?  Well, more likely the average woman consumes fewer calories and the average man more.  The distribution probably looks something like the "bimodal distribution" at right.  Thus most people have either lower or higher values and are going to have to do mental math to adjust.  

Knowing you've reached 10% of the 30% fat you are targeting for the day is complicated enough.  But what if you were to convert that 15% of the 30% of 2000 calories to a percent of 30% of 1500 calories or 2500 calories?  Or what if you are eating a lower fat diet of say 20%?   I did a little math in the table here for how many calories and grams of fat represent 30% of total calories for 2000 and then 2500 and 1500 calories.  I then did the calculation for what the %DV would be for 10 grams of fat.  Maybe I'm in left field here, but if I'm targeting my fat intake and I'm eating 10 grams, it is much easier to get that info from the label and then say well, I've got 40, 57 or 73 grams left.  

Protein to the Top!  

The above analysis was initially done for protein and then I noticed they don't even do %DV for that and stick it at the bottom under cholesterol and sodium!!  If they want to dictate overall diet on food labels, perhaps under that they could put a good minimum gram/lb body weight note underneath?

Grams to the Left!  

So they put those useless %DV on the left margin for clarity.  No!  Put the grams clearly on the left.  This is much better info even if you think there is utility in that %DV.  Also, not shown, should bold the major macro totals for protein, fat and carbs.

More Complete Macronutrient Breakdowns:  

It makes no sense to me to break out "bad" fats like saturated fat and trans fats and not itemize the so-called "healthy" MUFA and omega-3 fats.  This is especially puzzling given that the benefits of these fats in the diet are pretty well documented (as opposed to supplements that remain more controversial/conflicting).  

The starch breakout in carbohydrates may seem redundant, but why not do complete breakdowns.  Things will add up!  

A Little Macro Pie Chart:

I don't think this is that useful in trying to make daily targets or anything like that.  I suppose if one tried to match their personal macro pie with each food as best as possible, but that's not how it works in the real world.

The utility of the pie chart is illustrated with this item ... whatever it is.  It jumps right out at you that this is a low protein food.   (I think a lot of low carbers need to see these pie charts for some foods they demonize as carbs!!)    Regardless of what one is trying to do ... track, meet, target, etc. ... if you're short on protein, you pass on this, high on carbs, pass, looking to cut the fat, pass.  And so it goes.

Amounts for Main Micros:

My "label" shows amounts for 8 vitamins and minerals (yes they were just C&P'd) with the idea that these would be the top 8 perhaps qualified if the food is a good source of a hard to meet micro.  I don't like the idea of just using a short list of "desired" micros because not everyone has the same needs in this regard.  This might also mask a food high in some micro some might need to avoid.  List the info.  Frankly, except for the CRON people who use special software to micromanage their diets anyway, I don't think most people give any notice to this part of nutrition labels.  

Since It's the Government Anyway:

The food manufacturers get most of their info from USDA databases and such.  Have all labeled foods "registered" and added to the data base and assigned a barcode.  Do it for the big fast food chains and restaurants too.  Have free apps to run on every platform where you can type in a number or scan the code (or take a picture).  Have scanners in the store so if someone wants any detailed info they can go to the scanner just like I can do a price check at most department stores.  Problem solved.  Anyone looking further than the gross basics of calories and grams is going to prefer this anyway.  

You can't dictate diet at the food label level.  Yes.  I repeated that.


charles grashow said…
Susanne said…
If you had a pie chart visual, think how competitive fruits and vegetables and meats would look by comparison to packaged foods, if you had some way to prominently feature labels for them! (Well, maybe if there were some way to make fiber more clear among the carbs.) There are LOTS of people who don't even want to deal with the relatively simple math of the percentages and addition of grams accumulating to a daily total, that's why the serving sizes indication given now hardly seems to have an effect: because even the effort of dividing a package by 4 is too much for a lot of folks. (I'm not talking about the silly things like 2.5 servings of soda in a bottle -- I mean a package of macaroni and cheese or family size frozen lasagna designed for home prep, where it wouldn't really be that hard to divide it and put some of it into the fridge for another day.)

I remember people on the calorie counting forums saying they ate packaged foods in preference to cooking with fruits, vegetables, and meat, because the numbers were already laid out and ready to plug into their counter. And those folks just by being on the forums are more motivated to pay attention to this stuff than the average person.
Wuchtamsel said…
I think it's futile to think that food labeling will change the way people eat to the better. Foods that allow a lable of that kind to be placed on them aren't to be recommended in most cases. That's the core of the problem.
In the 80s there was a common anti-consumerism saying in Germany. "Kauf nichts wofür Werbung im Fernsehen läuft!" - "Don't buy anything that is advertised on TV!" I think something like "Buy as few foods with a food label on them as possible!" would be a good start.
Interesting point. I agree.

In the UK, however, we do get certain whole foods--like a full pack of potatoes, or most fruit--with labels to boot. Not all that bad, but again, it's not like I know all that many people who follow this stuff anyway.
carbsane said…
Yeah that's why I'd like that pie chart there. Could put numbers in it too? It's a quick visual that conveys the info better than numbers IMO.
carbsane said…
I agree on less is more. Perhaps that pie chart with the calories, and grams fat, pro, cho in larger/bold font. I do think IF you're going to itemize, you should do it fully. The person reading the label after the big stuff is likely seeking complete info.
carbsane said…
Back in the day when the only economical option for weighing foods was a cheapy spring scale (horribly inaccurate), and you had tables for calories like "small apple" vs. "large apple", I can see (and recall) how this favored packaged foods with a label.

The databases exist, if only they just had codes for produce and meat you could get reasonable calorie counts for just about anything these days.
carbsane said…
While I see your point, really the only thing that doesn't have a label in the traditional grocery store in this country is fresh produce, meat/poultry/seafood, specialty dairy and deli items. These labels are on boxes of mac and cheese, but also on the cheese, butter, milk and pasta used to make this item from scratch. They are on a box potato flakes as well as on the package to make cheesy scalloped potatoes. They are on rice and Rice-a-Roni. They are on canned and frozen fruits and veggies, but not fresh. It seems to me it would be better placed to extend labeling somehow to that which is not currently labeled. It would encourage eating real food I think without having to dictate.
Wuchtamsel said…
Great, so these labels are on everything. Did it help with anything? Even remotely? As far as I can see US-citizens as a whole neither lost weight since introduction of the label nor did they get any healthier. I mean, come on. Normally if something is wrong, "more of the same" is not exactly the solution.
The label is not inherently "wrong", but it doesn't help ****.
eulerandothers said…
I plug all those numbers into the food log where I track my daily calories. The benefit of all this information - vitamin C, for example - is that you come to learn what products are surprisingly devoid of vitamin C, vitamin A, Iron, Calcium, etc. Even if you don't pay close attention, you pay SOME attention. When you see that a sandwich has over 1,000 calories, it is a shock. It's also a shock to find that there are so few calories in a snack. Does it make you want to eat more of that snack? Maybe. But then, you have the option, the choice - the responsibility, actually - to choose to have just one of that snack.
eulerandothers said…
In my area (the Northeast), supermarkets have put the nutritional information on packaged fresh meat in the meat department. Hey, I lover Hamburger Helper - I make it with no meat. I thought making it with spinach was my brilliant invention until I read the box and saw that they actually suggest it.
Lighthouse Keeper said…
I can see your point, plus with all the media and guru induced confusion over the good or evil of saturated fat, protein , carbs , salt and sodium etc. an improved nutrition label might be as informative as a first rate compass in a magnet factory.
Sanjeev Sharma said…
an entirely separate panel must be on the packaging, or the "per-serving" panel must be omitted

... for containers that many people have come to see as one serving (yes, 250mL to 500mL of ICE CREAM has in many places become one serving, as one large ice cream maker already advertised widely more than a decade ago)

IMHO game and security professionals should be consulted on how corporations will game/abuse these systems. I intuitively sense the above "whole contaier" recommendation could be gamed to make the public think they "need to divide by 100" to find out how many calories a serving (that the public never eats) provides. Just the current abuse turned 180 degrees.
eulerandothers said…
I think the label is always going to be useful for people who take the time to read it. It will make a difference to people who are interested in managing their own diet a certain way. How can that be a bad thing? Low-carb people care about people sneaking carbs into their diet, low-fat people care about people sneaking fat into their diet.

You should care about saturated fat as long as the jury is out on how much damage it can do. Labeling just tells you the number of grams of saturated fat and if you don't care, then don't pay attention. Someone's doctor told them to cut down on sodium - they're going to care about that on a label, or they're just going to tune out their doctor's advice and eat what tastes good to them anyway.

Bottom line: the label gives you information, that's all. It doesn't make your choices for you. It tells you this is a huge moth'a of a sandwich. If you want to eat it, go ahead! It's not a policeman, it's just information for you to have if those things matter to you. It can't make things matter to you.

It will be as informative as anything that informs can be - which is just what that statement says. It's not going to do anything else. It doesn't have to.
carbsane said…
Yeah ... Total calories per container might be a nice addition. Those packages of noodles and sauce contain HOW many servings?
George said…
Your arrangement makes sense to me.
There's an even better refinement on NZ labels, which is "per 100gm". Because who eats a flippin' "serving" of anything? So your gm per 100 gm gives you the % of everything listed.
Still it would be good to have SFA, MUFA and omega 3 (you could work out omega 6 from that if you wanted to). Although I would be leery of omega 3 that came with a label in a processed food, being the least stable of fats.
Erik Arnesen said…
From December 2014, nutrition information on all processed food will be mandatory in most of Europe. The mandatory nutrition declaration may also be supplemented by an indicationThe nutrition labeling must include calories, fat, saturated fats, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt (in that order). The mandatory nutrition declaration may also be supplemented by an indication of MUFA, PUFA, starch, fibre, polyols, and vitamins and minerals (if present in significant amounts per 100 g/100 ml).

The amounts of nutrients must be expressed in grams (g) per 100g/100ml, and the energy value in kilojoules (kJ) and in kilocalories (kcal) per 100g/100ml. In addition, the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt may also be expressed as a percentage of reference intakes (i.e. 2000 kcal, 70 g fat, 50 g protein etc.).
charles grashow said…

"Volek says people who eat #lowcarb & see cholesterol skyrocket also see HDL go up, trigs go down. This may be real normal."

My head is about to explode!
eulerandothers said…
Fitday's nice. Spark People also has a tracker that gives a nice pie chart. But you do have to specify the micronutrients that you want to look at.
carbsane said…
Per our Twitter exchange, I would agree that the per 100g is useful for those looking to compare two items of interest.

I mostly say give more info rather than less.
George said…
Having access to the per 100g info one learns to use it. It enables you to pick up two pasta sauces, mayonnaise's, muesli bars or whatever from the same shelf and compare them in an instant, no need to go to a scanner or look up an app. In fact, it allows you to add information from one product into your understanding of another, to say "this product is especially low in sugar" or "this product is good value for protein".
A label can't tell you what to eat but if clear it can add to your understanding of how products are made and what that says about their nutritional value-for-money.
Scott Peterson said…
The label needs to say if the food is Paleo, Primal, or Lowcarb. That way there would be no more guessing or need for the "Dear Mark, is X food Paleo/Primal..."
carbsane said…
LOL! Would require too many updates as Robb changes his mind though :p
MacSmiley said…
Implication: HDL MAY high enough to compensate for the added LDL.

Right. Just like walking around the block will compensate for that extra piece of pie.
MacSmiley said…
Yes, I love the pie chart. Numbers are too abstract for so many consumers.
Sanjeev Sharma said…
good solution ... BUT

I can still see potential for abuse- specifically, formulating recipes to include ingredients at significant amounts per package but below reportable thresholds per 100g/ml
this form of abuse is apparently rampant in the "per serving" model

do you know if there are provisions in the European rules that prevents this or encourages this- are there rules that allow omission of ingredients when they reach below some threshold?
Erik Arnesen said…
I'm not sure, but according to Article 34 of the directive, if the the energy value or the amount of nutrient(s) in a product is negligible, the information on those elements may be replaced by a statement such as ‘Contains negligible amounts of …’ in close proximity to the nutrition declaration.

"In order to ensure the uniform implementation of this paragraph, the Commission may adopt implementing acts regarding the energy value and amounts of nutrients ... which can be regarded as negligible."
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