The New Food Label: Hardly Perfect, But Decidedly Better

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.

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  • commented 2016-05-24 19:48:17 -0700
    Absolutely Dr.Lustig!
    Oh that is wonderful that you are working on a study to show how the inaccurate fallacy of the; ‘its ok if you eat bad food as long as you exercise’ nonsense! Big Food hangs onto this lie big time. It irritates me a lot, especially when I see Soda companies and fast food giants brag about how they “donate” to schools to pay for sports equipment and activities. The government allows this, as sadly, the government doesn’t want to bother paying for schools to maintain their sports, or equipment, including all other subject departments, and that in itself is sad enough as it is. We see the absurdity in how sports and the olympics has sponsor banners from the big fast food giants, and big soda everywhere too! I would love it if there was a total #SodaBan in schools for starters (including ban on fruit juice, smoothies, sugar milks). Its just not fair on the kids. I am also very passionate about the possibility of starting a
    “Ban Bad Branding2Kids” (sounds catchy as a hashtag too) movement or campaign, as I feel it is completely shamefully immoral for BigFood to use cartoon characters, movie characters etc, to push crap onto kids ( #SugarPushers ). There are some shocking examples in my ‘sugar shockers’ album on my Facebook page, and I’m not even talking about the cereals!

    There is a person in the NHS London who I will present a list of possible helpful solutions they ‘could’ implement to help the childhood obesity crisis in London. As they actually produced a report where they cried out for help a few weeks ago, and GUESS WHAT; the current model of reducing calories and forcing kids to do exercise “doesn’t seem to be working” and their report says that London kids are now more obese than New York state kids! They are usually advised by these dieticians who reiterate the old CICO (calories in-calories out) model. The list will contain; school soda ban, cut out the hidden sugars, a calorie is not a calorie, sugar tax, and my BanBadBranding2Kids idea.
    So any new studies that can show that the:
    ‘everything in moderation with exercise’ and CICO is a pile of crap, are VERY very welcome!! Slay that calorie myth! #KillTheCalorie ?! Could be a new hashtag you can spread!? :-)

    As a kid in the 80’s, I remember all those people who would eat cardboard crackers and then go do a crazy aerobics class!
    I think it will probably take a long time for people to let go of the CICO myth, as it is ingrained as a belief. Psychologically, people will be afraid to let go of that belief immediately, and BigFood’s marketing knows this as marketing techniques prey on inner fears of failing, of not being good enough or liked enough, to name a few! In fact, I have been asked to do one of my talks at, of all the places, a modelling school workshop!!! If there was anyone who needs to be told how a calorie is not a calorie, oh gosh, its a group of models for sure! LoL

    Wolfram, I’d expect the Sugar Association will be as nasty as they can to anyone who tries to kill their profits. I won’t be surprised if they even come up with new ways to use sugar or hide it! Maybe even put it in e-cigarettes, those vape electronic things!! Some- already DO! An e-vape company was handing out free samples at a health show I was at a few years ago. I don’t smoke at all, but I tasted it/breathed it in. My sensitive body felt like there was something I did not like in it. I looked up the contents and boom! It contained coconut sugar, and as Im a strict sugar-free low carber (I have to be, huge problem with sugar, was metabolic syndrome in the past with an autoimmune disease that makes me T2D if I carried on high carb) I could even sense something sweet in a vape e-ciggerette!!
    I also wondered too, if sugar is in topical creams, gels, fake-tans, if you apply this daily, how much absorbs dermal then picked up into circulation?
    Agree about the cholesterol Dr.Sodicoff!! Hopefully that one will die out too, eventually!!!
  • commented 2016-05-24 12:29:49 -0700
    Fiona, the truth is, you can’t outrun a bad diet.

    Malhotra A, Noakes T, Phinney S. It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet.Br J Sports Med. 2015 Aug;49(15):967-8.

    We’re working on a study to show that.

    Bad diets cause health problems independent of exercise capacity. But as long as it’s about calories, the general public can’t get this point.
  • commented 2016-05-24 09:08:09 -0700
    Sadly, The Sugar Association provides no science to back up their claims - just marketing. But, we wouldn’t expect the “Tobacco Association” to welcome a reduction in tobacco use, would we?
  • commented 2016-05-23 23:10:25 -0700
    When this news first reached me, I thought; ‘oh great, at least this is hopefully an indication that The FDA and government (s) are going to attempt to take this seriously’!
    I too was a bit disappointed over the large emphasis on calories! I thought ‘ugh how typical’!..
    BigFood has hidden behind this calories misinformation for SO long now, will the public’s psyche ever be able to free itself from the calorie shackles? Maybe only when BigFood is forced to stop playing marketing mind games on the consumer?
    I did also think, well hey, at least they now must admit to added sugars!
    The hidden sugars con is what really annoys me, calling sugars fancy names like ‘evaporated juice’, ‘crystals’, ‘syrups’, ‘mana’ (yes, I once seen a product calling itself raw coconut crystal mana! Beyond the branding nonsense it was basically coconut sugar)!
    Can you believe that I have been paid to teach people how to; turn a carton around and read the real ingredients list. I never quite understood how or why most people couldn’t figure to do this by themselves. Delving into the psychology of marketing answers some of such questions!
    So will forcing BigFood to declare all hidden sugars cause a dent in their sales of such garbage products that they con the public into thinking are healthy, such as those low fat yogurts, terrible cereal bars, air popped chips, inc many more?
    I am sure that Big Food and the sugar industry will still insist that it is part of a balanced diet to enjoy their treats combined with plenty of excersise. How long before governments must act against those falsified beliefs and take the science seriously? When sales fall, BigFood will seek to reformulate processed products, this is even evident with Pepsi taking out the aspartame from their diet soda (replacing it with sucralose) due to aspartame being extremely unpopular.
    Totally agree about the fiber issue too!! This is so important, as over the decades, people’s microbiome has taken a bit of a bashing! Those poor microbiome are not too happy! Unfortunately the fashion of juicing still has a grip on many people’s belief system, and people think fiber is rubbish. I highlight this as one of the golden rules; that “fiber is your friend, as well as your good gut bacteria’s friend”!
    It’s as if people are disappointed that they should #KeepItWhole and consume fiber! People seem to find the most simple things the hardest to do, and like it when they think they must take fancy diet pills and powders!
    ….Still a long way to go :)
  • commented 2016-05-23 20:12:54 -0700
    Old ideas die hard, Dr. Sodicoff. You are correct, dietary cholesterol does not determine the serum cholesterol, and the serum cholesterol does not determine your heart disease risk (your LDL particle number does, but we don’t even measure that clinically). So the cholesterol content of a food is irrelevant. Likewise the calorie content of a food is what is released when exploded in a bomb calorimeter. No human is a bomb calorimeter. Plus, the amount of fiber in a food determines what percent of that food will be diverted down the intestine and utilized by the bacteria. So the calorie content of a food is meaningless. But the “cholesterol hypothesis” of heart disease and the “calorie hypothesis” of obesity continue to prevail among the unindoctrinated, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (see Lustig, Nat Rev Endocrinol 2006, and Ludwig’s new book, “Always Hungry?”). I refer you to a paper online, entitled “Does science advance one funeral at a time?”. It will take a generation to wipe out these debunked dogmas.
  • commented 2016-05-23 19:07:33 -0700
    Yes, enlarging the calories on the label only strengthens the erroneous perception that all calories are the same in the body whether from a strawberry or a strawberry Twizzler.
    The effort made to retain the “iconic” look of the label is just silly. Clarity and simplicity should have been the soul criteria.
    Why bother listing cholesterol anymore? I thought it was no longer a “nutrient of concern”.
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