by Marion Nestle
Jan 31 2013

FDA’s research on food labels: any help?

Nutrition Facts panels on food labels are notoriously confusing.  People who use them usually look for only one item such as fat or calories.

As I’ve discussed previously. the label is so difficult to interpret that the FDA devotes pages on its website to explaining it.  When the FDA did the original research in the early 1990s, it tested a large number of formats.  When it became clear that people did not understand any of them very well, the FDA chose the least worst—the one that was understood least poorly.

Two decades later, the FDA is revisiting the Nutrition Facts panel to make it easier to understand in the light of today’s concerns about calories and obesity.  Once again, it is testing multiple formats.  The results of the first round of research have just been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAND), and reporters are trying to make sense of them.

FDA researchers tested 10 formats differing in number of servings and columns (1 or 2, each), font size, and wording.  They asked respondents for opinions about the healthfulness of the product, number of calories and nutrients per serving, perceptions of the label, and the ability to choose healthier products and those with fewer calories.  This, like the research in the early 1990s, is complicated.

The result:

For products that contain 2 servings but are customarily consumed at a single eating occasion, using a single-serving or dual-column labeling approach may help consumers make healthier food choices.

Here’s an example of one of the formats that may help:

Soda companies are already doing something like this, but a 20-ounce soda has more than 2 servings.  Serving size is what confuses.  If it’s 100 calories per serving, those calories have to be multiplied by the number of servings per container.

The Institute of Medicine produced two reports for the FDA on front-of-package labels and also suggested a way to integrate its ideas into the Nutrition Facts label.

Is the FDA testing this idea?  I hope so.

  • RB

    My thinking on labels is that if the food comes in plastic or cardboard container and needs a nutrition label we are better off not eating it. We should be eating foods that don’t need labels like fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, grains, nuts and perhaps a little meat, fish and dairy. The only label we need are to state if the food is GMO or organic. However, the reality is that we live in a world with a lot of highly processed food in boxes. Ingredient lists with the percentage of eat ingredient by weight, volume and calories would be good.

  • Mary

    It is really sad that so many people cannot figure out that they should look at servings per container as well as the so called individual serving information. Are the majority of Americans unable to do simple thinking or just too lazy to bother? Or is it that we would like to believe that the whole container is only 100 calories so that we can eat it guilt free?

  • SAO

    I have an education and career that require/d lots of math. However, in America, I find it too troublesome to calculate calories from a bag of potato chips (often 1.3 servings). Sure, I can do the math, but I don’t bother. With containers that have the quantity in ounces and the calories by serving size the math can be hard to reasonably approximate in your head. So, yeah, I know it’s not 100 calories, but I often lose sight of just how many it is.

    In Europe, nutrition labels are per 100 grams. It’s very easy to do math in 100 gram quantities. I usually have a good idea of the calories I consume from the European labels.

  • It is so important to read every ingredient on every label.
    Trans fat is allowed on a label to claim 0 trans fat up to 500 mg.

  • I am an owner of a label manufacturing company. My company makes labels for many businesses that produce food products. We are constantly getting questions from our customers in regards to the listing of the ingredients and the nutritional information. It is funny that the FDA is saying that nutrition labels are too complicated. If anything, I feel like the FDA’s food labeling and ingredients requirements are 10x more confusing than the label itself. Many of the food makers have no idea how to decide on the number of servings, etc.

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