Though perhaps unconventional, one way a curious observer might monitor modern food trends is by studying the evolution of the nutrition information label on packaged foods. First mandated by the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, the latest chapter for the familiar black and white box will take effect by July 2018. Stalwarts against change might initially bristle at the news, but besides the new labels being yet another reminder that certainty can only be found in death and taxes, such a decree from the FDA merits further examination.

So what is going to change? Well, a few different things. To begin, the calorie count will be featured more prominently and in larger font. Though calorie count in itself is not indicative of a product’s health, for those who are calorie-conscious, the large font will be easy to see. Also, the serving size will change to better reflect what a normal person actually consumes in a serving. For example, ice cream will change from ½ cup to 2/3 a cup and soda will change from an 8 ounce serving size to a 12 ounce.  Which makes sense, because who stops drinking a can of soda 2/3 of the way through?

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U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The idea behind both of these changes is that the nutrition label should be there to help consumers manage their consumption and make it easier to interpret the numbers on the package. Doing mental math when a child is screaming and the ice cream is melting, and getting out of the store in ten minutes to make it home in time to get dinner started can be taxing. The new labels hope to streamline the process.

Further, the requirements for which vitamins need to be included on the package have changed, swapping out vitamins A and C for D and potassium. Back in the 90’s, Americans were lacking in A and C, but recent studies on food consumption have pointed out that deficiencies lay in other categories these days. The reasoning here is that people generally consume enough A and C, but need to be more mindful of their D and potassium consumption. Calcium and iron will stay put.

Of the proposed changes, the most debated is the requirement for specifically calling out added sugars from the total sugar amount. This decision stirred up some rumbling among food companies who argued that sugar is sugar and therefore, calling out added sugars is redundant. However, health advocates applaud the change, standing firm in the assertion that added sugars (as opposed to naturally occurring sugars) are a hidden danger to the health of the population.

The inclusion of added sugars took off in the anti-fat trends of the recent past (think anything “lite”), and have hung around even as fat has gained somewhat of a recovery in the public eye. Now, health professionals hope to draw attention to the empty calories associated with added sugars, which, unlike naturally occurring sugars that usually come along with vitamins and nutrients, offer no nutritional benefit whatsoever. Dairy products have naturally occurring sugars, so do fruits; pop does not. The FDA’s new rules aim at giving customers more knowledge about what they are consuming so that they can make the best choices for them and their loved ones.

The goal of the change in nutrition labels is to help consumers make good decisions based on current diet and consumption patterns. Time will tell if the intended impact comes to fruition, but the desire of the FDA to use data of current consumption as a basis for reformatting shows a desire to adapt regulations as the general public evolves. Time will also tell if the new labels have an effect on not only health, but purchase behavior. Will new nutrition labels affect FOP call-outs? Will they force a change in product formulation? Will they have an impact at all? Good questions. Time (and good research) will tell.

-Sierra Dooley, Research Associate and Mary Dolan O’Brien, Project Coordinator

About the Author REAL Insight

With over 25 years of experience, REAL Insight has led projects across a variety of industries that successfully identified consumer behavior and expectations in context, helping our clients make better decisions.

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