As the leaves take on brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow this fall, food packaging could adopt a more uniform tone.
It all depends on progress made by the Food and Drug Administration in crafting and gaining buy-in for a voluntary front-of-pack calorie and nutrient labeling system. As it prepares to issue draft guidance, the FDA is researching label types that will best serve consumers and ultimately improve public health, FDA spokesman Sebastian Cianci told SN.
Its effort comes after FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg adopted as one of her top priorities improving the scientific accuracy and usefulness of food labeling. In October, she announced a plan to review on-pack nutrition rating programs for violation of federal regulations, and has since sent warning letters to food manufacturers whose labels contain false or misleading claims.
Among the products targeted were those high in saturated fat, while touting trans fat-free status on the front of pack. The FDA took issue with items like these since they imply the product is a healthier choice than one without the claim, when that's not necessarily so, it said.
Some of the claims also weren't accompanied by the required statement referring consumers to more complete information on the Nutrition Facts panel. To present a clearer view, the FDA is seeking user-friendly standards.
“I believe we now have a wonderful opportunity to make a significant advancement in public health if we can devise a front-of-pack labeling system that consumers can understand and use,” said Hamburg in an open letter to the industry March 3. “We intend to work closely with food manufacturers, retailers and others in the design process, and I hope that every food processor will contribute views on how we can do this in the best way possible.”
Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington, is lending its support by reviewing existing consumer research and conducting new studies to understand the most effective ways to aid shoppers, Scott Faber, GMA's vice president of federal affairs, told SN.
“Once we have agreement on what works, we can implement an industrywide front-of-pack labeling initiative quickly,” he said. “We certainly share the administration's desire to redesign food labels to make them more effective with consumers.” The FDA will meet with individual CPG companies to solidify commitments this fall.
Supermarket dietitians, meanwhile, have strong opinions about how best to steer shoppers. Many are hoping the FDA will keep it simple.
“Consumers shouldn't have to have a degree in nutrition or play the role of an investigator in order to interpret information,” said Tyra Carter, corporate dietitian for United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas.
When posting calories per serving on the front of pack, information needs to be accompanied by quantity per serving, Carter said. Otherwise the consumer might assume that an entire cupcake equals one serving, even if it contains two.
“They need to see two pieces of information together — this many calories for 8 ounces,” said Carter. “This way, the person knows that if they buy a 20-ounce soda, they can't have the entire bottle if the bottle contains 2½ servings.”
The FDA recognizes that individually packaged sodas or snack packs that appear to be single-servings, but declare two or more servings on the label, can be misleading.
In 2005, the FDA initiated eight focus groups around the country, and presented participants with a 20-ounce soda and individually packaged large muffins.
“In general, focus group participants thought that having multiple servings listed on the label for these products was misleading and confusing,” according to an FDA advanced notice of proposed rule-making document. “Many participants did realize that if the entire package of food is eaten, the number of servings should be multiplied by the amount of the nutrient of interest; though some participants were confused and made mistakes when trying to calculate the total amount in their heads.”
Carrie Taylor, registered dietitian for Big Y, echoed Carter's sentiments about serving-size transparency. But where possible, she'd like to see serving sizes translated into relatable terms.
“If you're going to say, ‘One ounce equals 100 calories,’ tell us, is that six chips?” she said. “I don't think in ounces, and I'm almost definite that when the average consumer reads that, it just blows over their head and they don't understand what its means.”
Another issue under FDA review is whether to alter the serving size of foods. Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, as amended by the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990, serving size must reflect an amount customarily consumed. But some argue that current serving sizes — based on eating habits in the 1970s and 1980s — are outdated. And evidence suggests that Americans are eating larger portions today, Leah McGrath, a dietitian for Ingles Markets, told SN.
“This has been exhaustively studied,” she said.
Although an increase in serving size would better reflect the way people really eat, many fear it could be interpreted as a green light to eat larger portions. On the other hand, one who suffers from what Carter calls “portion distortion” overestimates today's serving sizes when portioning food, and therefore underestimates calories and other nutrients consumed.
Taylor recognized that a lot of Americans are overeating.
“I definitely agree that the nutrition facts label serving size may not be equal to the average consumer's helping of the product,” she said.
In recognition of these concerns, the FDA has said it will pair any increase in serving size with educational efforts.
“We do not want consumers to confuse the serving size on the food label with an amount that is recommended for consumption,” according to the FDA. “For example, if data shows that consumers are drinking larger amounts of carbonated beverages, and FDA increases the RACC [reference amounts customarily consumed], which will likely increase the serving size on the food label, additional educational efforts may be required to reinforce to consumers that a larger serving size on the container is not a ‘recommended’ serving size.”
Instead of adjusting FDA serving sizes to better match the way today's shopper eats, Taylor favors having them jibe with portions recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Currently, some serving sizes are in line with USDA recommendations, some are larger and some smaller, Taylor explained.
While serving size is required to reflect an amount customarily consumed, USDA-recommended portions are based on the nutrient content of foods. Although it makes for more arduous shopping, Taylor's tips for healthier eating are based on the USDA's system.
She advises Big Y shoppers to first find out how many calories to consume per day at mypyramid.gov, which features an interactive tool that customizes a target based on age, sex, height, weight and daily activity level. Armed with this information, consumers can visit the Living Well Eating Smart section of BigY.com, and print the appropriate meal plan. There are eight plans ranging 1,400 to 2,800 calories per day.
“If someone downloaded the 1,800 calorie meal plan sheet they'd see for the fruit group their daily goal is 1½ cups, which is equal to a tennis ball-size of fruit, or one-quarter cup of dried fruit or a half cup of 100% juice,” said Taylor.
If FDA serving sizes were to match USDA recommendations, shopping for consumers following Taylor's advice would be simplified. Today the FDA recognizes one cup of cooked pasta as a serving, while the USDA recommends half that.
“I'd like to see that standard for both agencies so the consumer can learn that information through dietitians and then execute it when they're shopping instead of constantly having to do an algebraic equation.”
United's Carter is likewise helping shoppers leverage a solution based on recommendations from the USDA's guidelines. It's the NuVal system, which uses a patent-pending algorithm to summarize the nutritional value of food into a single number from 1 to 100. The higher the score, the higher the nutrition.
“It's a great system because people are in a hurry and they don't have time to study nutrition facts panels or read all of the fine print,” she said. “It cuts through the chase of anything that manufacturers may be trying to do to make them think they're getting a more nutritious product.”
United began rolling out NuVal last month and it will be available in all of its stores by the end of the summer.
The system is proving to be especially helpful for consumers suffering from multiple weight-related diseases and conditions.
“Before they had to watch for several different things, but with NuVal they just look at one number and it deals with all those issues,” she said.