by Marion Nestle

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May 25 2016

Guest blog for Scientific American: the new food label

Guest Blog

The FDA’s new rules for food labeling are finally here

The changes are a step toward better health and less obesity, especially in children

By Marion Nestle on May 24, 2016

The FDA’s announcement of final rules for its overhaul of labels on food packages is a signature accomplishment of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

In 2010, in setting the agenda for Let’s Move!, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity called for improving the clarity, accuracy, and consistency of food package labels to enable parents and children to make healthier food choices.  The Task Force noted that more than half the adult public used food labels to decide what to buy, but that the current labels had hardly changed since the FDA’s regulations of 1993.

The FDA actually began work on revising the food label in 2005 with a request for public input on updating serving sizes, and it began formal rulemaking in 2008.  The FDA proposed rules and issued its last call for comments in 2014.

I attribute this nine-year process to details and politics.

First, the details. The Federal Register notice on the food label takes up 943 pages, and it takes another 170 pages to explain the changes in serving sizes.

FDA’s fact sheet on the changes explains the politics.  Most changes are relatively uncontroversial: the greater emphasis on calories, the removal of calories from fat, the requirement for “dual column” labels for “per serving” and “per package,” the updating of serving sizes to more closely reflect actual intake, and the rewording of the Daily Value footnote.  As Michelle Obama put it, ”you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.  So that’s a phenomenal achievement.”

Indeed it is, especially in light of a political climate in which the food industry and Congress do all they can to undermine public health measures in school food and child nutrition programs.

Mrs. Obama alluded to the ongoing political controversy: “most important of all, this label will tell you how much sugar in your snack was added during processing, and how much of it comes from ingredients like fruit.”

The new food label distinguishes between intrinsic sugars in food and those added in manufacturing; it also sets a Daily Value for the maximum amount of sugars recommended for diets of 2,000 calories a day.  I credit the Center for Science in the Public Interest for this accomplishment; it petitioned FDA for these changes in 2013 (its first added sugar petition was in 1999).

The Washington Post got right to the core of the controversy: “Why the sugar industry hates the FDA’s new Nutrition Facts label.” Americans consume roughly twice the amount of sugar recommended for good health, and sugars are rampant in processed foods.  All it takes is one 16-ounce soft drink to reach the 50-gram daily maximum.

The Sugar Association, the trade group for producers of sugar cane and sugar beets invokes science as the reason for its intense opposition: “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America.”

The Association argues, correctly, that the sugars that occur naturally in fruits are biochemically identical to those added in manufacturing.  But this argument misses how added sugars dilute the nutritional value of food products.  Much research supports the health benefits of eating fruit, whereas added sugars raise risks for obesity and other chronic conditions.

The Sugar Association does not really care about science.  It cares about what will happen to sales if people read labels and reject products with added sugars.  This, of course, is one of the purposes of Added Sugars on food labels.

The Association has reason to worry.  Since 1999, per capita consumption of sugars has fallen in the United States, although it still exceeds the 10 percent of calories recommended by the World Health Organization last year.  The new label should accelerate that downward trend.

An even greater worry is that labeling added sugars might encourage manufacturers to reduce the amounts in their products.  The FDA’s listing of trans-fatty acids on food labels in 2006 led to an immediate reductionin the use of hydrogenated oils as ingredients in food products.  I expect to see grams of sugars decline by the time these rules take effect in May 2018 (small food producers get until May 2019).

I see the new label as a political win for public health and Let’s Move!  But let’s keep this in perspective.  Healthful diets are based on foods, not food products.  We would all be healthier eating foods that do not come with Nutrition Facts panels, and saving most of those that do for once-in-a-while occasions.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Recent Scientific American Articles by Marion Nestle

May 20 2016

New food label! Congratulations Let’s Move! & FDA

I kept hearing rumors this week that Michelle Obama would announce the revised Nutrition Facts panel at today’s summit meeting of the Partnership for a Healthier America, the public-private partnership organization that supports Let’s Move!

And here is the graphic from the White House press release:

Congratulations on the long-awaited changes:

  • Calories big and bold
  • Added sugars

  • Serving sizes updated
  • “Dual column” labels for “per serving” and “per package”
  • Daily Value footnote: “The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet.  2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”
  • Nutrients: Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium.  Voluntary: Vitamins A and C.

Expect to see this on food packages in two years (small food producers get an additional year to comply).

Here are the relevant FDA documents:

Here are the early comments (I will be adding more as they arrive):

The new food label is an extraordinary accomplishment, especially in the light of a political climate in which the food industry and its friends in Congress fight public health nutrition measures tooth and nail.

For background, see some of my posts on food labels since 2008:

Addition, May 26: Politico reports that 6 food trade groups commissioned a study to demonstrate that the cost of implementing the new food labels would be much higher than estimated by the FDA.  Although the paper does not disclose its funding (or if it does, I missed it), Politico says the funders included the Corn Refiners Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Sugar Association, the American Bakers Association, and the International Dairy Foods Association.  As with most industry-funded studies, they got what they paid for.

Mar 22 2016

GMO labeling: it’s happening!

When the Senate last week failed to pass a bill that would block individual states from passing laws requiring GMO labeling, it meant that Vermont’s labeling law would go into effect July 1.  Vermont passed its bill in 2014.

 

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Too bad for the Grocery Manufacturers Association and its food and biotech company members who spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting labeling requirements.

Food companies now have a big problem.  If they want to sell products in Vermont, they must comply with GMO labeling.  Also, if other states pass slightly different laws, they will have to do labels state by state—a compliance nightmare.

Hence their attempt to get Congress to preempt Vermont’s law.  That ploy failed.

The result: one huge food company after another says it will voluntarily institute GMO labeling to comply with Vermont’s requirements.

As quoted by Reuters, General Mills says:

We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers, and we simply won’t do that,” Jeff Harmening, head of General Mills’ US retail operations said in a post on the company’s blog. “The result: Consumers all over the country will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills food products.”

Politico Morning Agriculture explains:

To be sure, General Mills is labeling as a practical business decision, not to change the policy discussion. The first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law is set to take effect in Vermont on July 1. As of that date, food makers face fines of $1,000 per day for every product type found on grocery store shelves in the state that’s not properly marked.

In the meantime, the Non-GMO Project, which certifies products as GMO-free, has put its seal on tens of thousands of products.

The reality: the public wants GMO foods to be labeled.

This should come as no surprise.  Public surveys since the late 1980s have come to the same conclusion.

Q: Why aren’t GMO foods labeled as such?

A.  Industry lobbying and an FDA too weak to stand up to it (see my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).

The GMO and grocery industries brought this situation on themselves by so strongly opposing labeling in 1994.  Believe me, they were warned (I witnessed all this as a member of the FDA Food Advisory Committee at the time).

Unless the industry can find another way to stop it, foods will be GMO labeled this year.

My prediction: the world will not come to an end.

Feb 3 2016

Where are we on GMO politics: an update

State GMO labeling bills: While Congress dithers, states are getting busy.  The Sunlight Foundation’s SCOUT database on state GMO legislative initiatives is searchable.  Examples:

Detente between producers of GMO and labeling advocates: USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a meeting to attempt to forge some kind of accord between producers of GMO foods and advocates for GMO labels.  By all reports, it didn’t work.  Earlier, Vilsack tried to negotiate detente between GMO producers and producers of organic foods.  That didn’t work either.

GMO Salmon: The FDA says it will not allow imports of GMO salmon.  Since GMO salmon are produced in Canada and Panama, this action in effect bans GMO salmon from the US food supply.  The FDA is working on labeling guidelines and probably wants them out before allowing imports.

Monsanto’s conversation:  Monsanto’s interactive website invites you to be part of the conversation.  Aything you like.  Someone from Monsanto will respond.  This site is clearly keeping Monsanto’s PR staff on its toes. Here is just one example:

Jan 29 2016

What does “natural” mean? One more time.

I’ve written repeatedly about the problem of “natural” on food labels, but the issue just doesn’t go away.  It won’t, until the FDA decides to rule on what it means.

Now Consumer Reports has done a survey of public understanding of the term.

The survey reveals that 62% of respondents want foods to be “natural.”   When they see the claim on a food package, they believe it has been verified independently.  Oops.

They also believe that “natural” means no artificial ingredients (correct, according to the FDA’s non-definition) or GMOs (incorrect).  The survey confirms the idea that many people think “natural” is the same as “organic,” which it is not.

Consumers, says Consumer Reports, are naturally confused.  And why wouldn’t we be, given the products labeled as “natural” (see the examples collected by Consumer Reports).

The FDA is currently collecting its own comments on this issue.  You can weigh in until May 15.  Please do. 

Nov 16 2015

FDA is taking comments on “natural”

I’m always indebted to Food-Navigator-USA for spot-on commentary on current food politics.  Here, for example, is Elaine Watson on the FDA’s amazing decision to take comments on the meaning of “natural” on food labels.

Having studiously avoided this food labeling minefield for years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has surprised many in the trade by seeking comments on the definition of a word that has launched a thousand class action lawsuits (well almost): ‘natural’.

Her piece is worth reading for its excellent reporting and interviews with industry stakeholders.

About “natural,” the FDA has said:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Now petitions have induced the FDA to seek comments, the first step in its standard rulemaking processes.

Specifically, the FDA asks for information and public comment on questions such as:

—Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,”

—If so, how the agency should define “natural,” and

—How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

“Appropriate” in this context translates as:  Should high fructose corn syrup be considered “natural?” (The FDA said yes in 2008).   How about GMOs? (the FDA’s position on GMOs is that they are not materially different from any other kind of food).

To file comments on these and other questions,

  • For electronic submissions, go to Regulations.gov and search for docket number FDA-2014-N-1207.
  • For submissions by mail, use the following address. Be sure to include docket number FDA-2014-N-1207 on each page of your written comments.  Division of Dockets Management, HFA-305, Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852
Sep 9 2015

Creative food packaging: An example from China

I thought we all needed a break from the debates over funding of science by the GMO industry and the organic industry.

How’s this for supermarket creativity!

image1

Maybe if the Soviets had used a Tomahawk instead of a sickle?

Thanks to Maya Joseph for sending me this photo sent to her by Lillian Chou in China.

Jul 24 2015

Good news: FDA proposes Daily Value for Added Sugars–10% of calories

The FDA announced this morning that it is proposing a Daily Value (the maximum) for Added Sugars on food labels—10% of calories.

Susan Mayne, FDA’s Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, explains the rationale: this is the percentage recommended by the Dietary Guidelines and practically every other health authority that has examined the evidence on sugars and health.

Ten percent of calories means 200 calories on a 2000 calorie daily diet, or 50 grams, or 12 teaspoons—the amount in one 16-ounce soda.

If you drink a 16-ounce soda, you have done your added sugars for the day.

If this seems abstemious, consider that 10% of calories is more generous than the amount recommended by the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition:

It is recommended that the average population intake of free sugars should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy for age groups from 2 years upwards.

The World Health Organization’s recent report on sugars and health also views 10% as the absolute maximum:

  • In both adults and children, WHO recommends reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake (strong recommendation).
  • WHO suggests a further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake (conditional recommendation).

The WHO report explains:

The recommendation to further limit free sugars intake to less than 5% of total energy intake, which is also supported by other recent analyses, is based on the recognition that the negative health effects of dental caries are cumulative, tracking from childhood to adulthood…No evidence for harm associated with reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 5% of total energy intake was identified.

Americans, on average, consume way more than 10% of calories from added sugars, so this recommendation means a sharp restriction.

It means consuming less of sugary products: sodas, baked goods, and all those packaged foods with added sugars.

The proposal is up for comment.

You can bet that there will be plenty.

Congratulations to the FDA for this one.  Let’s hope it sticks.

How to Comment

To comment on the proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts Label:

  1. Read the proposed changes.
  2. Starting Monday, July 27, 2015, go to Regulations.gov to submit comments.
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