Food Labeling

Why the FDA's Updated Nutrition Facts Label Is a Stinker

The mandatory 'added sugar' disclosure is a misleading loser.

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Credit: Lhe3460

Last month, competitive eater Matt Stonie, who won the most recent Nathan's hot dog eating title by downing 62 hot dogs, sat down with a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Over the next seventeen minutes, Stonie ate the contents of the bowl, which held two entire boxes of the cereal, along with a gallon of milk. The 7,700-calorie meal contained more than one pound of sugar.

My first thought while watching Stonie eat the equivalent of 22 servings of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, naturally, was to wonder what, if anything, Stonie thinks of the FDA's newly updated Nutrition Facts label. What's his take on the label's larger, bolder typeface? What about the new footnote about the FDA's recommended 2,000-calorie diet? Did he consider it before he ate almost 8,000 calories of cereal and milk in one sitting? Did he consider whether his consumption patterns mesh with the new label, on which, "[b]y law, serving sizes must be based on the portion consumers actually eat." Did he ponder whether the sugar he ate was sugar or added sugar.

I'm guessing Stonie, like many Americans, didn't read or base his decision on the Nutrition Facts label at all.

The looming changes to the Nutrition Facts label include changing the typeface of the terms "calories," "servings," and "servings per container;" updating serving size requirements; and mandating food makers declare the amount of "added sugars" in a food product. By my count, there are 30 separate numbers on the updated Nutrition Facts label. That's actually an improvement, from down from 39 numbers on the existing label.

Larger food makers have two years to comply with the rules, while ones making less than $10 million each year have three years.

As President George H.W. Bush declared in signing the law that gave rise to the now-ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label in 1990, the purpose of the label is "to assist consumers in selecting a healthful diet."

In announcing the latest changes, last week, the FDA gave the Nutrition Facts label a far broader and more generalized mission: to "make it easier for consumers to make informed choices about what they're eating." Have consumers been uninformed or misinformed by the existing label?

The most common argument in favor of an "added sugar" label is tautological: it claims that the current Nutrition Facts label hides added sugar.

"The final label requires Added Sugars to be declared to help consumers know how much sugar is added to the product," the White House reveals. Well, yes, of course it does, just like the existing requirement to declare total sugars helps consumers know how much sugar is in the product.

Actor Chuck Norris agrees with the First Lady. "Current labels make it difficult—if not impossible—to measure the precise amount of sugars that are added to products," wrote Norris in a column this week applauding the new FDA rules.

Vogue also suggests the new label makes it "easier to be aware of the total grams of sugar in a food."

What's not to love? Lots, in fact. The new label does little well, and several things badly—including that it is misleading.

These concerns aren't new, either. In a 2014 column, I blasted the FDA's overreaching and foolhardy attack on added ingredients, including not just sugar but also trans fats, salt, and caffeine, referring to them collectively as "total and utter nonsense." As I wrote noted in that column, added sugars and naturally occurring sugars (like those that occur naturally in fruit) are exactly the same substance. For example, take three hypothetical foods: a glass of orange juice, a can of soda, and a sugar-glazed, fruit-filled pastry. They may have the exact same amount of total sugar. The fact the juice gets its sugar from oranges, the soda its from added cane sugar, and the pastry both from the fruit and from added sugar in the glazing tells us nothing whatsoever that pertains to nutrition.

The origins of the sugar—be they from nature (as all sugars begin) and added by man or by directly from nature, or both—tells a consumer not a single thing of import. Consumers can already identify added sugars without the recently announced changes is to simply read the FDA-mandated list of ingredients. "Reading the ingredient label on processed foods can help to identify added sugars," the USDA notes.

"Use of the term 'added sugar' is misleading," I wrote last year, "as it creates a deceptive health halo around products like orange juice and apple juice, which are high in naturally occurring sugar but contain no added sugar."

I also noted the "added sugar" label also begs the question of why the FDA would just stop at mandating added sugar on food labels, and not also require labeling that identifies added protein and added carbs, added salt, added caffeine, and added allergens like soy and dairy. In fact, just this week, the FDA announced new "voluntary" guidelines for added salt, which have faced sharp criticism. Anyone who believes a line for "added sodium" isn't in the cards in the coming years hasn't been paying attention to the way the FDA operates.

Finally, there's very real issue of whether these labels will really accomplish anything. I think not.

"The people who read labels are the people who are already watching their health and their weight," I told Reuters in 2013. Research backs me up. One-third of participants in a 2011 study claimed to look at calorie counts on Nutrition Facts labels. But even that low figure was higher than reality.

"What the eye-tracking data showed: only 9% looked at calorie count for almost all the items in the experiment," reported a Time article on the study.

Marion Nestle, who pushed the FDA to make the present changes, called the new label "a signature accomplishment of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation." While I think the general goals of Let's Move! are true, the impact of the campaign is dubious. Despite all the attention Mrs. Obama has devoted to children and obesity during her husband's presidency, overall obesity rates didn't fall. In fact, they've inched up.

All of that is to say that these misleading new rules are just another way for the federal government to expand the regulatory burden on food companies by creating rules that have little impact on obesity.