Out of Focus
Where Nutrition Labels Miss the Mark
by Sam Dolph
At the end of May, the FDA announced that nutrition labels will be updated for the first time in over 20 years. The new labels, which will gradually funnel out over the next two years, will still boast the same “iconic” black and white look, but some nutritional information will be presented differently. Most notably, the calorie number will appear about three times larger than any other number on the label. Serving sizes will also be updated to reflect portions of food that humans actually eat in one sitting, thus increasing the number of calories per serving for some products. Consumers will now see “added sugars” listed so they know how much sugar a product has naturally, versus how much was added during processing. Daily values of nutrients will additionally be updated to include milligram amounts. Moreover, there will be a focus on nutrients where medical professionals commonly find deficiencies, like vitamin D and potassium, rather than vitamins A and C, which Americans generally get enough of nowadays.
Michelle Obama, perhaps the nation’s leading figure in the fight against childhood obesity, announced these changes as part of her Let’s Move! initiative. So far, Obama has pushed to make school lunches healthier, ban artificial trans fats, and integrate grocery stores into poor communities that didn’t have access to fresh food. Based on these previous accomplishments, it comes as no surprise that Obama took time to focus energy on perhaps the most commonly read piece of nutritional information out there, and one that is nearly impossible to avoid as a consumer.
At a time when poor diet can often be found as the root cause of many chronic illnesses and even death, we need to make changes when it comes to nutrition and public health initiatives in order to divert from the declining health trend across the country. But are these new nutrition labels really the right way to promote health and improve poor eating habits? Who will they help?
The new label’s focus on calorie number is a problematic change because it reduces good health to one simple number. In reality, nutrition and healthy living are affected by many different factors: what about protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals? How about exercise? Spending time with loved ones? Sleep habits? Do we need a supersize, new nutrition label that includes all of this information, and that hangs on the walls of the grocery store, with every factor bolded, so we don’t forget? We have to start talking and thinking about health in a way that looks at it holistically, and not simply at weight. Clearly, when we look at current health trends, we can see that what we have been promoting and comprehending isn’t working.
This isn’t to say that calories or weight aren’t important—they are, they’re just not the most important factors of health (and they shouldn’t be looked at in isolation). It’s true: burning more calories than one consumes is a surefire way to lose weight, and eating less calories to begin with means there’s less to burn off. But this way of thinking isn’t healthy, and it’s certainly not sustainable. Not only does obsessively counting calories promote a culture of shame and eating disordered tendencies, but it also prioritizes low-calorie choices like 100-calorie packs or egg-beaters over real, nutritiously dense food, like walnuts or actual eggs.
The label’s new focus on calorie numbers frankly feels like an antiquated move. It’s 2016 and many calorie-centric diets have faded into the past for good reason. Now, diets like the Whole30—which focuses on whole, unprocessed foods that con- tain high, healthy fat and doesn’t allow participants to count calories or step on a scale at all—are becoming more and more popular. Making the calorie number physically bigger (and bolded) on new labels suggests that eating less in general is most important when it comes to diet. But eating enough good food to keep you full, and eating less of the processed stuff (regardless of calories) is really the key to longevity and feeling healthy. To consumers, the meaning of the term “calories” is simply “bad”—why emphasize that over other constructive, more informative indicators of health?
It’s also important to think about whom these new labels will reach. Sure, everyone who buys packaged food products has the opportunity to see and read these labels, but what kind of people actually read them? In her announcement of the new labels, Obama encouraged consumers by saying, “Soon you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for your kids.” She was being hyperbolic of course—the older labels weren’t much harder to read—but perhaps she did not realize the truth she actually touched upon: that it takes privilege to be able to not only read and understand nutrition labels, but also to use that information to make informed choices.
Poor diet and the health complications that come from poor diet can affect everyone—but they especially affect our most vulnerable populations: low-income families, immigrants, people of color, and rural communities. For these populations, it’s not easy to walk into a Whole Foods, compare the nutrition panels of two bags of granola, and walk away with the healthier option. Literacy level, language and cultural barriers, basic math skills, and especially income level all dictate how people put food on the table, and thus their health outcomes. For consumers on a budget, the only number they will look at is the price, regardless of how big the calorie number grows on the package.
Ultimately, the implementation of new nutrition labels isn’t going to magically transform grocery habits; nor is it likely to prevent many deaths or diseases. Probably the only people who are going to pay attention to the new labels are the same people who paid attention to the old ones. It’s not that the update is bad. No one is going to be worse off for reading the new labels, and consumers deserve to be kept up to date regarding what they’re choosing to put into their bodies.
Rather, the update is underwhelming. One can only hope that this update is not indicative of the food policy changes to come, because our health depends on developments that are both thoughtful and far-reaching. Perhaps focus can turn away from the calorie and processed foods in general, and instead move towards diets based in whole foods that barely need labels to begin with. And even better, maybe money can be spent not on outdated practices like the nutrition label, but on innovative education strategies and affordable access solutions for all. A girl can dream.