Fixing the FDA's New Nutrition Information Label

Photo:USDA

Last Thursday, the FDA announced it is finally taking steps to change the contents and design of the country's nutrition label. To give you a sense of how momentous an occasion it is, you only had to glimpse the unveiling ceremony, which featured the head of the FDA flanked by a top-shelf entourage including First Lady Michelle Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

This is a big deal, folks. And now that we've all had a weekend to look over the proposed changes and roll them around in our heads, the results are in: A big, hearty "Meh."

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Luckily, this being our fine United States government, we get about three months to let them know what we think of the changes. (Whether or not they'll do anything with this information remains to be seen.) Here, then, are a list of things that need to be fixed before the food label is rolled out to the grocery stores:

1. Calories Are Not the Only Enemy

The first thing you notice about the new labels is how the section containing the caloric content has been bolded, with an increased font size. This is not by accident. Seeing as calories have become the first thing consumers look for, the new food label makes this information more easily accessible. The problem with this mentality, though, is that not all calories are made equally:

For instance, a serving of Planters Creamy peanut butter is 180 calories -- much more than the zero calories in a tablespoon or two of Walden Farms Whipped Peanut Spread. While the imitation peanut butter seems like a guilt-free alternative, Planters peanut butter contains 7 grams of protein and 150 milligrams of sodium, whereas Walden Farms Spread has no protein and 210 milligrams of sodium.

Giving the calorie section such a prominent place only continues to send the message that they're the only thing people should care about. That's far from the truth. Maybe that information is what consumers want, but most people also want their nightly news broadcasts to consist entirely of sports and celebrity gossip. Sometimes, what the general public wants isn't necessarily important.

2. Serving Size Shenanigans Need to Be Fixed

One of the quirks of the new system is how serving size is handled. The new label proposes that items generally consumed in a single sitting will be considered "single serving." Where this change will have the biggest effect is in the soft drink arena, where 12-ounce cans of Coke will be considered the same "single serving" as 20-ounce bottles. While this may reflect the reality of the situation, the L.A. Times notes the lurking danger of a change in consumer mentality:

Once labels say that 20 ounces of soda is a single serving, consumers might start thinking of that as a standard, reasonable size. They shouldn't.

No, the current system -- labeling an item that will clearly be eaten in one sitting as multiple servings -- isn't perfect. But it's far better than giving consumers the impression that it's fine and dandy to drink that much sugar water at once.

3. Omissions That Need To Find Space

The labeling argument is really one about real estate. Realistically, there's a certain amount of room on a label, and the fight is over what should be on there. So, the fact that the proposed labels don't contain every possible bit of info is understandable. That said, there are a number of omissions that show how out of touch the FDA still is in this ever-changing landscape of food technology.

Missing from the new labels: Whether or not it's been grown using pesticides or chemical fertilizers, whether or not the animals were raised using antibiotics or growth hormones, and whether or not any GMOs are present. Until those areas are rectified, this label will be left wanting.

4. Change Up the System Entirely

Any modification in a government-controlled system is going to be incremental, as so many hurdles need to be jumped before change can occur. But when you're making a change only once every two decades, the world moves at too rapid a pace for that system to be effective. For example, most people have smart phones now, so there's no reason why each label shouldn't come with something to be scanned that can tell the consumer more specific information about what's inside; leaving something like that out is missing an opportunity.

So perhaps the biggest thing missing is simply the idea that labels should be changed more often. The last time our country's food label was altered, Nirvana was still playing concerts. Part of the proposal should be the institution of a regular -- say, bi-annually, or even quad-annually -- review to see what should be added, removed, or changed to the label. Because if the past is any indication, this is the label we're going to be stuck with until 2034. And unfortunately, it's already obsolete.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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