Planning Healthy Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

When the Nutrition Facts Label was created in 1993, it was revolutionary. For the first time, consumers could read the nutrition information on a food package to know what was in it and that the information was held to government standards for consistency and accuracy. This rectangular box has since become one of the world’s most recognized graphics, with countries around the world adopting their own version.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.To continue the spirit and purpose of the Nutrition Facts Label, we are proposing important changes to bring it fully into the 21st century. A lot has changed in the past 20 years. Much more is known about food consumption and nutrition, the health of our population and the dietary choices that can help keep us healthy or make us vulnerable to an array of chronic diseases.

The changes that we’re proposing reflect that knowledge, based on an extensive examination of the latest public health trends and research on nutrition and disease, including obesity. There is a lot of information on FDA.gov about our plans, but I’d like to hit the highlights:

  • “Added sugars” would be listed on the label along with the current “Sugars” declaration (which includes both naturally occurring and added sugar). This alone is huge: The average American takes in many calories every day in sugars added during food production. Experts call these “empty calories” that often take the place of foods rich in nutrients.
  • Speaking of nutrients, listing the amount of Vitamin D and potassium – which many of us don’t get enough of – would be required. They would join calcium and iron as nutrients important to public health.
  • People generally eat differently today than they did 20 years ago. The serving size requirements would be updated to more accurately reflect what we’re actually eating. By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what people “should” be eating.
  • Certain packages that are typically eaten in one sitting would be required to be labeled as a single serving, which would mean you would know how many calories and nutrients you are consuming for the whole package. For example, a 20-ounce soft drink would be one serving under the proposal, not more. Certain larger packages that could be consumed in one sitting or in multiple sittings would be required to be labeled per serving and per package.
  • While continuing to require “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” on the label, “Calories from Fat” would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.
  • The format would be modernized. Calories and serving sizes would be displayed more prominently in larger, bold type. The %DV (daily value) would be moved to the left, so that you can immediately put a nutrient in the context of your daily dietary needs.

I’ve been asked if we’re proposing these changes because an increasing number of people in this country, including children, are obese and at risk of serious diseases tied to food consumption.

The answer is both no – and yes.

No, because the Nutrition Facts Label is for everyone. FDA does not regulate diets, but we can make sure that you know exactly what you’re eating. Having more information can enable you to make an educated decision about the foods you eat and serve your family.

Yes, because we know that too many people’s health is being compromised by the food they eat. This includes those at risk for serious disease like cardiovascular disease, hypertension, strokes, diabetes, and obesity and all of us to wanting to have healthy diets can tell at a glance what is in a particular food.

As a consumer myself, I would find a Nutrition Facts Label that reflects the current science very helpful when making food choices for myself and my family. These changes should make it easier than ever to judge a food by its label.

Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., is Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Trans Fat: Taking the Next Important Step

By: Michael R. Taylor 

With all of our worthy focus on implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act this past year, we must not lose sight of other critical areas in which FDA, and specifically the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, must work and be effective to protect public health. 

One of our core regulatory functions is ensuring that food, including all substances added to food, is safe.  If evidence suggests that a product already in use is unsafe, we take steps to protect the public health. That is what we are doing in the case of partially hydrogenated oils, the major source of artificial trans fat. 

There is a lot of evidence showing that trans fat intake can increase the risk of heart disease by raising low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol. Trans fat has been a concern for some time, and that is why ever since 2006, FDA has required that food manufacturers declare the amount of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label. 

We’ve come a long way since then. In the United States, consumption of trans fat from products containing partially hydrogenated oils has declined dramatically from 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012, according to FDA estimates. And food manufacturers have made significant progress to reduce the levels of trans fat in processed foods. But there are still many processed foods with trans fat including some snack foods, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, cakes, cookies, stick margarine products, coffee creamers, pies, and ready-to-use icing products. Many restaurants are also cooking with less trans fat. Elimination of industrially produced trans fat from foods could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7000 heart-related deaths each year. 

So now we are ready to take the next important step that could lead to the removal of partially hydrogenated oils from processed foods. Partially hydrogenated oils have long been considered by industry to be “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, for their use in food. GRAS status implies that they are regarded by experts as safe under the conditions of intended use. This means they can be added to food without being approved in advance by FDA. 

Because of the evidence linking trans fats to an increase in the risk of heart disease, however, FDA has preliminarily determined that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer GRAS for any use in food. We are providing a 60-day comment period to ask for additional information. If, after reviewing the comments and scientific information submitted, FDA makes the final determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not GRAS and are not otherwise authorized for use in food, such oils become unapproved food additives. That would make their use unlawful unless a company or other petitioner could prove to FDA that one or more specific uses are safe under the “reasonable certainty of no harm” safety standard. 

If FDA ultimately determines that partially hydrogenated oils cannot be used in food, we recognize that it may take some time to phase out their use. Therefore, in our notice we are seeking input on the time that industry would need to remove partially hydrogenated oils from the food supply. If we finalize our tentative determination, we would provide industry with time to comply. 

Consumers who are interested in reducing their trans fat intake can take steps now. First, choose products that are labeled as having “0” trans fat. But under current regulations, even these products can have up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, which can add up depending on what foods you choose. So in addition to choosing products labeled “0” trans fat, you can check the ingredients statement and avoid products that contain partially hydrogenated oils. 

Protecting the safety of the food supply can mean a lot of different things, and this action is just one of the many initiatives FDA is taking to meet its public health responsibility. 

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine