Why Our Nutrition Facts Need an Overhaul

One bag of chips has 300 calories, the other has 360. Right now, it’s impossible to tell which one <i>actually</i> has the lower amount.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Brian Resnick
Feb. 26, 2014, 7:32 a.m.

“To say they [the data] are im­per­fect is the equi­val­ent of say­ing the Ti­tan­ic had a float­a­tion prob­lem or a buoy­ancy prob­lem.”

Earli­er this week, news broke that the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion is fi­nally set to re­lease new guidelines on nu­tri­tion la­bels, 20 years after it im­ple­men­ted the cur­rent ones. This move is huge. Not only does it af­fect every single food pro­du­cer in the United States (in hav­ing to re­design product pack­aging), it could also stand as a paradigm shift in the way Amer­ic­ans think about nu­tri­tion.

For in­stance, if “ad­ded sug­ar” is high­lighted more prom­in­ently on the la­bel, as some are re­port­ing it might be, that would co­di­fy sug­ar as be­ing pub­lic-health en­emy No. 1. If it provides con­sumers with more real­ist­ic serving sizes, it might in­duce second thoughts about pur­chas­ing that pint of ice cream that says it is five servings (but we all know what will really hap­pen there).

The nu­tri­tion la­bels as we know them have been around since 1994, when the 1990 Nu­tri­tion La­beling and Edu­ca­tion Act went in­to ef­fect. But nu­tri­tion is a slip­pery sci­ence, de­pend­ent on self-re­por­ted data­sets for dec­ades. What we “knew” just a few years ago — for ex­ample, that eggs are bad for heart dis­ease — doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily hold true today. And pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of nu­tri­tion is fur­ther di­luted by the prom­ises of fad di­ets.

Which is to say that the pro­spect of cre­at­ing a nu­tri­tion la­bels that re­flects sol­id sci­ence and can re­main val­id for dec­ades is fraught. Add to that chal­lenge, the task to make that in­form­a­tion sa­li­ent to people without over­whelm­ing them, and the task seems down­right im­possible.

But change is needed. Here’s why our cur­rent la­bels are so flawed:

1. There’s no one stand­ard way to meas­ure a cal­or­ie.

Say you are look­ing at two bags of chips. Both weigh the same, and pre­sum­ably con­tain the same amount of chips. One bag has 300 cal­or­ies, the oth­er has 360. Which one ac­tu­ally has the lower cal­or­ic amount? Right now, it’s im­possible to tell.

That’s be­cause the FDA al­lows for five dif­fer­ent ways to meas­ure total cal­or­ies and al­lows for a mar­gin of er­ror of up to 20 per­cent. Ba­sic­ally, a man­u­fac­turer can either use pre­de­ter­mined con­ver­sions (one gram of car­bo­hydrate is four cal­or­ies) or burn the product to see how much en­ergy that comes off. These will provide dif­fer­ent val­ues.

And the FDA doesn’t have the greatest track re­cord of over­sight on the la­bel val­ues. In 2008, a Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice re­port found “FDA’s test­ing of nu­tri­tion in­form­a­tion has been lim­ited and has found vary­ing de­grees of com­pli­ance.” Al­though 87 per­cent to 91 per­cent of la­bels were in an al­low­able range in an audit, “com­pli­ance rates var­ied sig­ni­fic­antly for a few nu­tri­ents.” Only 47 per­cent of la­bels were in the cor­rect range for the amount of Vit­am­in A they con­tained.

2. Per­cent daily val­ues are based on very shoddy data

Much about what we “know” about nu­tri­tion comes from a four-dec­ades-deep data­set called the Na­tion­al Health and Nu­tri­tion Ex­am­in­a­tion Sur­vey, or NHANES, which is com­prised of self-re­por­ted data. And from this, ba­sic cor­rel­a­tions emerge, like how high-fat di­ets are linked to high­er weights, and so on. The sur­vey has also giv­en us a pic­ture of what the av­er­age hu­man eats. Those val­ues, in turn, are re­flec­ted in nu­tri­tion policy.

But it turns out that people are hor­rible about ac­cur­ately re­port­ing their food in­take.

“To say they [the data] are im­per­fect is the equi­val­ent of say­ing the Ti­tan­ic had a float­a­tion prob­lem or a buoy­ancy prob­lem. These data should not be used,” says Ed­ward Arch­er, an obesity re­search­er, who au­thored a sci­entif­ic take­down of the NHANES data in the Journ­al PLOS One.

That’s be­cause people would com­monly re­port levels of food that are in­cap­able of main­tain­ing hu­man life. “In no sur­vey did at least 50 per­cent of the re­spond­ents re­port plaus­ible [en­ergy in­take] val­ues,” Arch­er and his coau­thors con­cluded in their study.

3. Serving sizes do not re­flect real­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Sci­ence in the Pub­lic In­terest, a watch­dog group, data on serving size comes from a 20-year old sur­vey (again, us­ing self-re­por­ted data) from the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment. “Four­teen new­er food con­sump­tion data show that con­sumers are eat­ing lar­ger por­tion sizes than they did in the 1970s and 1980s,” the cen­ter wrote in its 2010 case for nu­tri­tion facts re­form.

For in­stance, un­der cur­rent reg­u­la­tions, a serving size of ice cream is half a cup. Try scoop­ing only that amount. 

4. In­form­a­tion can be over­whelm­ing.

You can give people num­bers, but those num­bers may not be sa­li­ent in terms of chan­ging be­ha­vi­or. 

In the 2008 re­port, GAO found that con­sumers “gen­er­ally found nu­tri­tion la­beling con­fus­ing.” And while 30 per­cent of con­sumers say they will look at a nu­tri­tion la­bel when pur­chas­ing an item, an eye-track­ing study found that only 9 per­cent will look at the cal­or­ie counts when read­ing a la­bel.

In 2003, the FDA star­ted re­search­ing the prob­lem to try to make the nu­tri­tion in­form­a­tion more sa­li­ent. “One con­sist­ent find­ing … was that par­ti­cipants don’t like to do math, and they of­ten make mis­takes when de­term­in­ing the cal­or­ic and nu­tri­tion­al con­tent of pack­aged food,” Amy Lando, an FDA re­search­er said in a pod­cast. The agency found that con­sumers were likely to make bet­ter de­cisions when a serving size re­flec­ted the con­tain­er size or when the la­bel had an ad­di­tion­al column with the en­tire cal­or­ic count of the con­tain­er (which may be a hint as to what the new la­bels will look like).

“It ap­pears that in­form­a­tion is not one of the main obstacles to people eat­ing well,” Ju­lie Downs, a re­search­er at Carne­gie Mel­lon Uni­versity, told me. She led a study that found no changes in be­ha­vi­or after the im­ple­ment­a­tion of cal­or­ie counts in a fast-food res­taur­ant. While that’s not the same thing as buy­ing gro­cer­ies, she thinks the concept car­ries over.

We don’t think of food in terms of num­bers, and it’s hard to put 300 cal­or­ies in the con­text of an en­tire day. It’s even harder, con­sid­er­ing that in­di­vidu­al factors play a huge role. As Arch­er ex­plains, “Put­ting a num­ber on a box isn’t go­ing to tell that per­son what their body is go­ing to do with the food.” For some people, so­di­um is a prob­lem, ex­acer­bat­ing high blood pres­sure. For oth­ers, it’s not. Those who are phys­ic­ally act­ive meta­bol­ize food dif­fer­ently than those who are more sedent­ary. And we haven’t even waded in­to the de­bate over wheth­er all cal­or­ies are cre­ated equal.

The new re­com­mend­a­tions will be re­leased to­mor­row. Good luck, FDA.

What We're Following See More »
Byrd Rule Could Trip Up Health Legislation
1 days ago

"Even if House Republicans manage to get enough members of their party on board with the latest version of their health care bill, they will face another battle in the Senate: whether the bill complies with the chamber’s arcane ... Byrd rule, which stipulates all provisions in a reconciliation bill must affect federal spending and revenues in a way that is not merely incidental." Democrats should have the advantage in that fight, "unless the Senate pulls another 'nuclear option.'”

Senate Votes To Fund Government
2 days ago
House Passes Spending Bill
2 days ago

The House has passed a one-week spending bill that will avert a government shutdown which was set to begin at midnight. Lawmakers now have an extra week to come to a longer agreement which is expected to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before President Trump signs it.

Puerto Rico Another Sticking Point in Budget Talks
3 days ago

President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."

Democrats Threaten Spending Bill Over Obamacare
3 days ago

Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.