As you have no doubt heard, on May 20 the FDA finally issued its new Nutrition Facts label. This is the first time since the first label was introduced in 1990 that there has been a change. And given the about-face that has occurred in the science of nutrition, it’s certainly about time. The previous label did nothing but hide the worst of iniquities in processed food, and helped to promulgate the obesity, diabetes, and fatty liver disease epidemics. The question is, did the FDA do right by the public this time? In my opinion, the answer is a decided yes and no.
The question is, are there good foods and bad foods, and how do you distinguish them? Indeed, there are good foods (real food) and bad foods (processed food). All food is inherently good; it’s what we do to the food that’s not. And the more you do to the food, the worse it gets. In fact, the Brazilian Dietary Guidelines focus on the level of processing. And the UK National Obesity Forum’s new proposal accentuates food processing as well. So the FDA should tell us what has been added to the food, and what has been taken away. And this time the FDA did that…sort of.
First the good.
In the last iteration, the FDA chose to demonize fat, and especially saturated fat. What nutrition science has now exposed is that dietary fat does not make you fat. And saturated fat is not the demon it was portrayed to be. By ditching the calories from fat on the new label, the FDA seems to have learned that lesson.
Another improvement to the label is the line for added sugar. Added sugar has been shown to be causative for four diseases: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and tooth decay. We need to know how much sugar has been added to the food to make a rational choice. The food industry hid behind “total sugars” on the old label (which includes the endogenous sugar in the food as well as milk sugar), so they didn’t have to tell you how much was added. Now they have to fess up. And there will be a Percent Daily Value, to tell you how close you are to your upper limit with any given food.
Even though the Added Sugars line item is a good addition, the FDA still screwed this up, for two reasons: 1) There are still 56 names for sugar, and you still don’t know them, and they can hide them in plain sight in the ingredients list; 2) They will continue to list the added sugar in grams instead of teaspoons, figuring America can’t divide (take the grams and divide by 4.2 to get teaspoons).
And now the bad.
The new Food Label still focuses on calories. They made the calories even bigger and bolder than before. To their credit, they altered the serving size to what most people eat, not what the food industry said people eat (as they have reason to underestimate). But it’s not about the calories. It’s about the degree of food processing. It’s about how much sugar has been added, and how much fiber has been taken away. There’s no change to the information on fiber, and whether the fiber is endogenous (which consists of both soluble and insoluble fiber, and feeds your microbiome to keep you healthy) or whether it’s added cereal fiber (which doesn’t and just makes you flatulent).
A year ago, we had a USDA Dietary Guideline that didn’t provide an upper limit for added sugar, and a FDA Nutrition Facts label that didn’t address it. As I said in the March 20 Los Angeles Times, we needed both to change in order to educate the public. Well, now both have changed for the better. Public education is now possible.
And as I said in the January 7, 2016 Time Magazine about the new USDA Dietary Guidelines, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. The same goes true for the FDA Nutrition Facts label. The fact that the FDA recognized that added sugar is a health menace and chose to label it (like it did with trans-fats in 2006 before they were banned in 2013) says they get that there is a problem. The new label will help to soften the playing field by educating consumers about what’s been added to their food. And the food industry is now under pressure to reformulate. But the fact that the FDA didn’t go all the way in exposing sugar as an environmental hazard says that there is more work to do. Remember, education alone has not solved any substance of abuse. We’re not done. Not by a long shot. IRN will continue to work for policy change to improve the nation’s, and indeed the world’s food supply.
Robert Lustig, MD, MSL is a pediatric neuroendocrinologist and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. He is the Director of the Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health Program at UCSF. He is a thought-leader in metabolic health having authored Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. He is also the Co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition.
For more insight from Dr. Lustig, visit his media archives here.
In all fairness, here is The Sugar Association's response to the new labeling requirement.