FDA's Shoddy, Misleading Changes to Nutrition 'Facts' Label Take Effect

The label changes include new font along with pointless and misleading information.


Hours before Americans began raising champagne flutes and toasting the arrival of the New Year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its final guidance for food-labeling regulations that manufacturers that must comply with.

The agency's timing for the announcement, which centers on changes to the mandatory Nutrition Facts label that appears on virtually all packaged foods regulated by the FDA, wasn't great. First, it makes the classic Friday news dump seem rather ostentatious, given the FDA released the guidance on New Year's Eve eve. Food executives who were spending time with their families or in line at the liquor store probably missed the guidance—which appeared in the Federal Register on New Year's Eve itself. Add to that the fact the regulations the FDA's guidance is intended to explain took effect on January 1—mere hours after the agency released that guidance.

The timing has meant grocers such as Whole Foods and PCC (a co-op in Seattle, where I live) have been scrambling to explain the changes to their customers.

Still, though the timing of the guidance is inopportune, it would be unfair to characterize it as some sort of FDA "gotcha" targeting the food industry. The rules apply right now only to very large food producers—those with at least $10 million in annual food sales. What's more, the agency is giving food manufacturers six months to come into compliance with the rules. And, according to the FDA Law Blog, last week's agency guidance differs only slightly from an earlier draft guidance.

But the tardiness of the FDA's guidance is hardly the only knock against the new rules. In fact, it's not even among my chief complaints.

If the old "Nutrition Facts" label wasn't great, then the revised label is hardly an improvement. Visually, it moves some things around and plays with fonts and bold text. As Today.com explains, the new label displays caloric information "in a larger font size[,] and the numbers will be bolder." 

Does a little bold text here and a slightly larger font matter? Probably not. A study I cite here found that only 9 percent of consumers read calorie counts on food labels.

My real complaints, though, concern the substance of the label itself.

For one thing, the "facts" the Nutrition Facts label rests upon might more properly be dubbed the Nutrition Opinions label. After all, the Nutrition Facts label reflects the opinions and recommendations of a federal panel of dietary and nutrition experts. As with the current revision—but unlike actual facts pertaining to human nutrition—that label changes from time to time. Perhaps most importantly, the dietary and nutrition experts' recommendations, as I've explained, rests on shaky ground.

Much has been made of changes to the recommended serving sizes of various foods that appear on the Nutrition Fact label. While serving sizes that reflect the quantities a person actually eats in one sitting make sense logically—a serving size of ice cream, for example, jumped under the new rules from a paltry half cup to a more robust three-quarters of a cup—I'm not sure if the new label requirements add any clarity here. After all, these numbers are averages at best. What's more, the agency's new reference amounts for breakfast cereals, for example, suggest a serving size of 20 grams for children ages 1-3 but anywhere between 15 grams and 60 grams for adults.

I'm not sure that makes sense. Then again, this is the same agency that issued a 36-page guidance document in 2018 that contains the words "Serving Size for Breath Mints" in its title.

Finally, some supporters of the revised labels argue that the push to list "added sugar" on the Nutrition Facts label will lead food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar they add to foods—in response to consumer demands spurred by the revised label.

It might do that. (Consumers were already angling to consume less sugar before the label change.) But the label will most definitely mislead and confuse consumers greatly. That's because the "added sugar" requirement, I wrote in 2016, "creates a deceptive health halo around products like orange juice and apple juice, which are high in naturally occurring sugar but [often] contain no added sugar."

According to the FDA, the new Nutrition Facts label is intended to help consumers make more informed choices and to combat obesity and heart disease. That's a pipe dream. A 2012 study by E.U. researchers found "no real-life evidence exists linking nutrition label use with measured changes in body weight." Instead, the authors determined that "price, taste, convenience, and shopping habits are simply far more important than nutrition information when making food purchasing decisions."

Ultimately, the very small subset of eaters who focus on the minutiae of nutrition data on food labels may be the only ones excited by or capitalizing on them. Years from now, when those same people propose yet another revision to the Nutrition Facts label—this time we'll get it right—please greet them with the skepticism they deserve.

NEXT: How Truth Became a Casualty of the War on Smoking

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40 responses to “FDA's Shoddy, Misleading Changes to Nutrition 'Facts' Label Take Effect

  1. I like it when labels shout at me.

  2. I’m half-tempted to see what can possibly take up 36 pages on the serving size of breath mints.

  3. Bad piece of news #1 for Welchie Boy and all the PFLs of Reason: your democratic party candidates all still absolutely suck, just like they did yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. And with each passing day it gets closer and closer to being too late for a good candidate to jump in and save your asses.

    1. Except Tulsi Gabbard, every remaining 2020 Democrat has important strengths.

      Biden has the connection to the Obama years.
      Warren would be the first woman of color President.
      Sanders supports access to abortion care right up until birth.
      Mayor Pete would be the first openly gay President.
      Bloomberg and Steyer are billionaires which means they agree with Koch / Reason libertarianism on most major issues.


      1. “Biden has the connection to the Obama years.”

        And should therefore be impeached as soon as he is sworn in.

        “Warren would be the first woman of color President.”

        We know what happen ed to her claims of Amerindian ancestry. Has anyone checked two see if she’s actually female?

        “Sanders supports access to abortion care right up until birth.”

        Sanders would support cannibalism if he thought it would get him votes.

        “Mayor Pete would be the first openly gay President.”

        This is a qualification?

        “Bloomberg and Steyer are billionaires which means they agree with Koch / Reason libertarianism on most major issues.”

        How does that follow?

  4. Bad piece of news #2 for Welchie Boy and all the PFLs of Reason: even if the joker-faced old hag Nancy Pelosi does deliver her stupid-ass impeachment to the senate (though that’s looking less and less likely to happen every day), not only will every republican senator vote to acquit, but they will be joined by 1 to 3 democrats as well. It will be a total bipartisan exoneration.

    I think even Pelosi herself knows this, which is why it probably will never even happen.

    1. Maybe the Ds can get John Kerry to bribe Iran to start a war…

  5. Then again, this is the same agency that issued a 36-page guidance document in 2018 that contains the words “Serving Size for Breath Mints” in its title.

    Obviously, our tax dollars go towards financing future comedians.

  6. They are also a violation of freedom of the press – assuming no fraud.
    Not that pragmatic Reason really cares about principles

    1. Reason isn’t at all pragmatic
      It’s utilitarian

  7. Thank you very much. Interesting article.

  8. While serving sizes that reflect the quantities a person actually eats in one sitting make sense logically

    How about just providing info for *the whole package* and letting “a person” do the math for a “serving”?

    1. I’d like that too. If I want some canned pineapple or potato chips, I don’t measure out ounces, I eat what I want. PB&J sandwich? Sliced ham and sliced cheese sandwich? The amount varies considerably.

    2. Agreed. The sample label shown here at least makes a point of showing how many “servings” are in the package. And I have seen some packages that list information in two columns, one for a “serving”, the other for the whole package. Unfortunately, multiplying the per-serving amounts shown by the number of servings in a package doesn’t always give the per-package amounts shown. Somehow, the rules for these labels have been promoting bad math. Bad logic, too, when they say “Not a significant source of x, y and z”, when they should say “of x, y or z” (but probably can’t, legally).

  9. The label changes include new font along with pointless and misleading information.

    But think of the JOBS!

  10. More bad economic news.

    Charles Koch is already down $444,000,000 this year.

    If this abysmal Drumpf economy lasts much longer, how is Mr. Koch supposed to fund open borders advocacy?


  11. Like the ‘food pyramid’, these stupid labels admit they are always wrong, because they are always in the process of being “revised”.
    I suspect the next iteration will include a line for the carbon impact of the product.

    1. Stop giving them ideas!

  12. Did you really expect the new labeling laws to be a good thing when the labeling laws themselves come labeled as “guidance”? “My advice is to do as a say or I will shoot you in the head” isn’t so much “advice” as it is a threat, wouldn’t you agree?

    1. Reminds me of the “Dear Colleague” letter the Department of Education sent out “advising” on how to comply with Title IX issues and then were shocked – shocked! – to discover that colleges were treating it as if it were the law rather than just a suggestion when the lawsuits started rolling in. “No, no! We didn’t say you had to do these things, we were just suggesting that you might want to do them if you know what’s good for you.”

    2. Legally, guidelines (now guidances) don’t have the force of regulations. Rather, they’re standards that the agency says if you meet, you won’t be deemed in violation of the actual regulation they’re a guidance to. They don’t say that if you don’t follow the guidance, you won’t be in compliance with the (unclear) regulation.

  13. While I appreciate the reason to view these labeling requirements as intrusive, people have a right to know what the hell they’re consuming without having to wait for evidence they glean independently.
    Food manufacturers are selling incredibly unhealthy crap to consumers and we all see the results walking the streets. Sure, a lot of that is directly because the government decided to tell is how to eat decades ago and did that in the worst way possible, but you don’t go from incredibly bad advice to a complete elimination of information about what we’re eating.

    1. Food manufacturers respond to incentives just like everybody else. If they’re not providing the information you think they should be, it’s because not enough people care as much as you do.

      1. I want to know what I’m eating. I don’t see what kind of godforsaken political philosophy would insist that I shouldn’t have access to that basic information.

    2. The FDA requires certain, particular information to printed. The question is how useful or valuable that information is to consumers? If someone goes to McDonald’s, do they really *care* if a Big Mac has about 560 calories?
      If you buy a bag of greasy potato chips, don’t you already know that you’re not choosing a healthy eating option?
      The legalese of the FDA requirements is of dubious value to consumers, but an undeniable added expense to food manufacturers. If people really want to know what they’re consuming, evidence gleaned independently may be far more useful and valuable than the information the FDA requires.

      1. The FDA has been telling people to eat the wrong crap for 40 years and as a result we have people addicted to processed garbage that has a lot of them grossly obese and diabetic.
        I don’t want anybody to keep you from eating whatever garbage you want. That’s certainly your right. But it’s ridiculous to think that it’s too much trouble or expense for companies to sell sugar loaded junk to people without any information about what is being consumed. And a lot of it is labeled as healthy.
        Goddamn, do you people want to die fat and miserable in the name of libertarianism? Use some common sense.

    3. While I appreciate your comment, I’d appreciate it if you would read the article first.

    4. Food manufacturers are selling incredibly unhealthy crap to consumers and we all see the results walking the streets. Sure, a lot of that is directly because the government decided to tell is how to eat decades ago and …

      Only the rich were fat for thousands of years. It’s more like look at how many people the enlightenment has made rich than bad government advice.

  14. This will sound pedantic, but I don’t know how else to say it.
    The number of grams of fat, protein, carbohydrate and fiber in a specified number of grams of a food ARE facts. They are not opinion. The author may not care about these facts, but that does not make them opinion.
    The changes may or may not lead to changes in the composition of prepared foods. But facts are facts, whether you like them or not.

    1. “The number of grams of fat, protein, carbohydrate and fiber in a specified number of grams of a food ARE facts.”
      Are they really? Where do those ‘facts’ come from? How does the manufacturer determine how much fat, protein, carbs, and fiber are in their products? Is it EXACTLY the same for every one of their thousands or hundreds of thousands of each item that they package and sell? You might say that what the label shows is close enough to the truth, but the fact is that those ‘facts’ are indeed open to determination, and even fudging, based upon the FDA requirements.

      More importantly, how valuable and useful are these ‘facts’ to consumers? We’ll never know as long as government requires their version of the facts to be printed.

      1. As is the case with any other measurement, there is error. The content of a sample of food can be determined with very high precision. If you want to know how it is done, look it up, rather than assume that this is a low reliability effort.

        1. The human body is not a bomb calorimeter. As such comparisons of caloric content are only remotely valid for highly similar foodstuffs.

          In other words 100 calories of dried pasta and 100 calories of walnuts are really not caloric equivalents.

          1. Additionally, the numbers for most perishable and/or ‘whole’ foods are pretty terrible to begin with. Your ribeye and broccoli may weigh a pound each, but the fat and vitamin content are going to vary wildly from region-to-region, season-to-season, and cut-to-cut.

            They certainly can be determined to high precision but accuracy is a factor too and, when it comes to truth in labeling, both are needed; and as evidenced by the additional bullshit that gets greater priority in food labels the people in charge of the food labels don’t exactly consider themselves to be fully employed in the truth business.

      2. this is a strawman. If you’re mixing up chemicals and processing them up, you have your measurements.
        There is an argument for the local mom and pop pizza joint but don’t pretend that Kellog’s can’t possibly figure this crap out.

  15. Stupid changes to stupid labeling requirements are stupid.

  16. I used to think that simply requiring food manufacturers to include the nutrition label wasn’t too much of a problem. After all, what can be so bad about requiring them to state more information about their products?
    But a few decades of labeling requirements have shown that government can’t even do that right. Bad information/misinformation can be worse than no information at all!

  17. If you assume any dietary guidelines coming from the government are drivel, you won’t be wrong often enough to matter.

  18. Food. Labels. You mean like “USDA certified Angus beef” that is by USDA administrative law any bovine with 51% or more black hair?
    How about water “chilled” meat instead of refrigerated? Water at meat prices. Organic certified? Unless, of course, the organic components are not available to the farmer, who can then use whatever and call it organic. Legally. Free range, grass fed, carbohydrates, sugar……every single rule/admin law/regulation is written for the industry, not the consumer.
    Caveat emptor.

  19. In the graphic it states the six 3 cup bags of (product) at 1/2 cup servings is 18 servings.

    It is 36.

  20. I have noticed that since the new labeling guidelines took effect, some food products show less vitamins than they did before (like only 4 when the same product used to show 16). But this article did not address why that is. I have already contacted the company to make sure that they didn’t change their recipe.

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