It has been twenty years since federal law made Nutrition Facts a required part of food packages. Almost certainly you have found yourself at the supermarket or in your kitchen staring at those labels, trying to make sense of the many numbers that quantify fat, cholesterol and calorie content along with other measures of how healthy (or unhealthy!) a food is to eat.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for the design and content of Nutrition Facts, says knowledge about nutrition has advanced in the past two decades, and that label changes to reflect the new information may be on the way.
Diane Rigassio Radler is director of the Institute for Nutrition Interventions at the Rutgers School of Health Related Professions. Radler says Nutrition Facts has been a big help for consumers, and bringing it up to date would make it even more valuable.
Rutgers Today: Do we have data to show how often people use Nutrition Facts to help them decide which foods to buy?
Radler: Yes. Research suggests that three quarters of Americans say they have referred to Nutrition Facts while shopping. Women tend to use it more than men, and people with more education and higher socioeconomic status also refer to it more than others. For those who use Nutrition Facts, the link between the use of nutrition labels and healthier diets appears to be self-reinforcing. That is, consumers with healthier diets are more likely to use nutrition labels, and using the labels has a positive impact on food choices, such as total energy (calories) or specific nutrients (low sodium or low fat).
Rutgers Today: As the FDA considers revising the format of the Nutrition Facts label, what do we know now about food ingredients and their effect on health that wasn't well known 20 years ago?
Radler: While many researchers knew the importance of dietary fiber 20 years ago, awareness among consumers has increased only recently. The FDA's 2010 Dietary Guidelines improved awareness by emphasizing that when we choose grains, at least half of our daily intake should be whole grain -- which contains more fiber than refined grains. I also would say that transfats were not recognized as detrimental to the diet 20 years ago; however at the end of 2013 the FDA announced that partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of transfat, may not be safe in the U.S. food supply.
Rutgers Today: Are there categories on the labels that should be made easier to see -- or reformatted?
Radler: Yes, especially calories per serving and per package. Often foods and beverages come in packages that look like single serve but really contain two or three servings. If people do not realize that and use the entire package they may be misled about how many total calories (or how much fat, sodium and cholesterol) they are consuming. It also may be useful to change units of measurement shown on the labels from grams to more familiar quantities such as teaspoons.
In addition, some research suggests that a visual system would be easy to use in place of, or in addition to, the nutrition numbers. An example is a "stop light" icon with red, yellow, or green to indicate a poor, medium, or good choice.
Rutgers Today: We don't know when any changes to Nutrition Facts labels might be made. In the meantime, what should consumers focus on as they use the current labels, even if they need to work hard to find the information?
Radler: I think that depends on the individual and his or her specific nutrition goals. For example if weight management is important, then looking at calories and fat is key. It may be more useful for people with other health needs such as blood pressure or diabetes management to use the labels to find foods with low sodium or high fiber.
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