FDA’s New Labels: Big Step Forward or Missing the Point?

In an attempt to combat the obesity epidemic, the FDA is proposing big changes to mandatory food labels. As you can see above, the new labels are going to use different font sizes to better emphasize calories and servings per container. The major goal of the new labels is to help draw our attention to how much we’re eating because the food industry has become really good at getting us to consume lots and lots of calories. More minor changes highlight percent of daily values and create the new category of “added sugars.” Overall, the labels have gotten pretty good initial reviews from major influencers in the world of nutrition like Marion Nestle and Mark Bittman.

I’ll agree, the new proposals are definitely and improvement over what we have right now. Making it easier to decipher portion sizes and drawing attention to added sugars are vital aspects of any good nutrition label. Thanks to larger portion sizes, Americans have been eating more food than ever before. And our added sugar consumption has skyrocketed over the past few decades (which is at least partly due to the increasing availability of HFCS made possible by agricultural subsidies). So by drawing attention to some of the big problems in the SAD, the new FDA labels provide a great nudge forward.

Despite these positive steps, I can’t help but think that the whole discussion of nutrition labels is barking up the wrong tree. When we’re trying to help people make better food choices, doesn’t making a better nutrition label sort of miss the point? We need to pay more attention to the ingredients that we’re ingesting rather than the nutrient breakdown in our foods. When we fall pray to the One-Nutrient-At-A-Time logic, we set ourselves up to be taken advantage of by marketers and charlatans. Sure, we’ve been able to categorize how our bodies process vitamins, minerals, and even macronutrients, but nutrition is clearly way more complicated than that.

The more we study, the more we realize how much we still have to learn. Plants are loaded with tons of biochemically influential compounds like polyphenols and flavonoids. Everyday we’re learning more about how these phytonutrients interact with our bodies to influence our health. We’ve talked about probiotics and prebiotics before on this blog – I don’t see them referenced anywhere on the FDA’s new proposed labels!

My point isn’t that to be perfect, the FDA’s new labels need to incorporate the newest advances in the ever-changing world of nutrition to do a good job of helping us make good choices. It’s that when we focus on nutrients, we miss out on the bigger picture. I agree that it’s a big step forward to make calorie counts more clear. But the foods that we eat interact in so many more complex ways that calories only tell a small portion of the story. Michael Pollan is right when he tells us to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” So we’re moving forward. Now we need to continue to emphasize making smart choices with the foods that we eat, not just with the nutrients that we consume.

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