by Marion Nestle
Aug 9 2007

Better Nutrition Labels?

Today’s question (see Vending Machines post): “I was looking at the Nutrition Facts Label on a bag of carrots today…If I read this label and compare it to packaged foods, the carrots really don’t look all that healthy. And yet I know they are. I have the same experience with apples and with other fruits and vegetables. What needs to be added and changed on the Nutrition Facts panel so that this makes more sense? Has anyone done a blind study of nutrition labels, having people compare them side-by-side and see which food they believe is more healthy without knowing what the food is, but from the label alone?”

Response: When Congress passed the nutrition labeling act of 1990, which mandated Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, the FDA created a bunch of possible designs and tested them on consumers. The result: nobody understood any of the designs. The FDA chose the one that consumers least misunderstood. In What to Eat, I devote two chapters to explaining food labels, one for Nutrition Facts, and one for Ingredients. The FDA has a lengthy site to teach the public to understand food labels. I think the ingredient list tells you more about the real nutritional value of foods than the Facts part. My rule, only somewhat facetious, is to never buy foods that have more than 5 ingredients. The more processed a food is, the more ingredients it is likely to have (to cover up the losses), and the lower its nutritional quality. Fresh and some frozen foods have only one ingredient: carrots, apples, broccoli, beans. The most important thing I’d change on food labels is the calories. The FDA proposed five years ago to require packages likely to be consumed by one person to display the total number of calories on the front panel, rather than listing calories per serving, which makes the calories appear lower than they are. What happened to that excellent proposal? It disappeared without a trace (the packaged food industry loathes the idea). It’s tricky to figure out what else an ideal food label would display. Any ideas? Forward them to the FDA (and post them here, of course).

  • elfling

    One of the measurements I’ve been thinking about is a “nutritional density” ranking. I have no idea how you’d actually create it. The idea that I’m trying to express is some measure that shows that 100 calories of, say, broccoli sauteed in olive oil is healthier than 100 calories of shortbread cookies or 100 calories of potato chips, even if they happend to have the same number of fat grams.

    The numerator would be some sort of sum of all the nutritional value, and the denominator would be calories. I have no idea how you would appropriately weight “270% of the RDA of Vitamin A + 2 g fiber + 10% of the RDA of Vitamin C” or if it’s practical in any way. Probably not. Probably worth some significant prize in Mathematics if it can be solved. 😉

    People have often used % of calories from fat as a ranking, but with low calorie foods like vegetables, it’s caused people to avoid eating them with any fat at all, which would be fine except that sometimes that leads them to not eat the vegetables, and to instead pick up low-fat crackers or something else that is not actually more nutritious.

    Thanks for letting me indulge in a bit of late-night musing.