Start a public health degree at American Military University.
By Samer Koutoubi, M.D., Ph.D.
Program Director and Faculty Member, Public Health, American Military University
After more than 20 years, the Food and Drug Administration finally introduced its new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods in May 2016.
With inputs from the general public, the Nutrition Fact Label reflects new scientific public health research, including the proven relationship between dietary intake and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease.
“I am thrilled that the FDA has finalized a new and improved Nutrition Facts label that will be on food products nationwide,” first lady Michelle Obama said in 2016 when she unveiled the new labeling. “This is going to make a real difference in providing families across the country the information they need to make healthy choices,” she added.
According to the FDA, the use and impact of food labels on the public's buying habits was assessed in the 2014 Health and Diet Survey. The survey of 2480 participants found that 77 percent of American adults reported “using the Nutrition Facts label always, most of the time, or sometimes when buying a food product.”
Consumers Primarily Use a Food Label to Find Nutritional Information or for Comparisons between Products
Among the survey participants, 79 percent said they used a food label either often or sometimes when buying a product for the first time. “When the label was used, it was most often used to find out the nutrient contents of a product or to compare nutrient contents between products. Lack of interest was the primary reason cited for not using the label at all,” the survey noted.
Sixty percent of American adults also reported using multi-vitamins, multi-minerals or single-ingredient vitamins or minerals. In addition, “83 percent of vitamin/mineral users looked for product information before using a product for the first time; they reported getting information mostly from product labels or traditional healthcare professionals.”
By comparison, 93 percent of consumers who used herbal products said “they looked for product information before using a product for the first time.” These consumers also said they got product information from family, friends and the Internet.
Nearly all adults thought the nation eats more salt than we should. Consumers who are 51 years and older or who have chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should pay special attention to their salt intake.
New Nutritional Information Is on Food Labels
The FDA’s new Nutrition Facts label includes an updated design to highlight “calories” and “servings,” two important elements in making informed food choices and requirements for serving sizes that more closely reflect the amounts of food that people currently eat.
What and how much people eat and drink has changed since the last serving size requirements were published in 1993. By law, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, requires that serving sizes be based on what people actually eat. That include a declaration of grams and a percent daily value (%DV) for “added sugars” to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product.
The new label also has dual columns to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrition information for certain multi-serving food products that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings. Examples include a pint of ice cream and a three-ounce bag of chips. With dual-column labels, people will be able to easily understand how many calories and nutrients they are getting if they eat or drink the entire package/unit at one time.
For packages that are between one and two servings, such as a 20-ounce soda, the calories and other nutrients will be required to be labeled as one serving because people typically consume it in one sitting.
The label includes updated daily values for nutrients like sodium, dietary fiber and vitamin D, consistent with Institute of Medicine recommendations and the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Daily values are reference amounts of nutrients to consume or not to exceed and are used to calculate the %DV that manufacturers include on the label.
The declaration of Vitamin D and potassium will include the actual gram amount, in addition to the %DV. These are nutrients that some people are not getting enough of, which puts them at higher risk for chronic disease. The %DV for calcium and iron will continue to be required, along with the actual gram amount. Vitamins A and C will no longer be required because deficiencies of these vitamins are rare, but these nutrients can be included on a voluntary basis.
“Calories from Fat” has been removed from food labels because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount. “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” will continue to be required.
Experts Recommend that Americans Decrease Their Intake of Sugar
The FDA is also making minor changes to the Supplement Facts label found on dietary supplements to make it consistent with the Nutrition Facts label.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020) support reducing caloric intake from added sugars. Expert groups such as the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization also recommend decreasing intake of added sugars.
Food Labels Help Consumers Make Informed and Healthier Choices
“By providing the required nutritional information, consumers will have the information they need to make healthier, more educated decisions about their food choices when eating outside the home,” said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association. “These regulations are an achievement for public health, and are a positive step toward fighting the high chronic disease rates that plague our nation.”
The nutrition label has a new design that is intended to make it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices. This is especially crucial for individuals with chronic disease such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
The new label began appearing on packages even before the required government deadlines. Manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual food sales must switch to the new label by January 1, 2020; manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales have until January 1, 2021, to comply.
Public health professionals should intensify their efforts to educate the general public about the benefits of the new food label and how to use it for healthy food planning. A public health education campaign targeting multicultural diverse groups is needed to educate the consumer on how to read the new label and the differences between the new and old food labels.
About the Author
Dr. Samer Koutoubi earned his Ph.D. in Dietetics and Nutrition from Florida International University in 2001. He earned his M.D. degree in 1988 from Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Dr. Koutoubi’s research focuses on coronary heart disease among tri-ethnic groups including African-Americans, Caucasians and Hispanics. His interest is in disease prevention and wellness, epidemiological research, cardiovascular disease and nutrition, homocysteine metabolism, lipoprotein metabolism, and cultural food and health. Dr. Koutoubi has also authored a number of articles in peer-reviewed journals and written a book review. He served as the Editor-in-Chief for The Internet Journal of Alternative Medicine and reviewed manuscripts for The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Ethnicity and Disease Journal, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and The Journal of The National Medical Association. Dr. Koutoubi has written for several blogs, such as In Homeland Security, Online Learning Tips, MultiBriefs, Medium and Healthcare POV. He has also been quoted in national magazines and newspapers, including Natural Health Magazine, Energy Time, Well Being Journal, Northwest Prime Time and Natural Food Merchandiser.