23 January 2013

FDA Study On Updating the Nutrition Facts Label To Better Help Consumers

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are looking at updating the Nutrition Facts Label found in food items. The update will incorporate the latest nutrition and public health research and improve the presentation of nutrition information to better help assist consumers in their food choices.

Most food items carry a Nutrion Facts Label. This contains the essential values of fat, protein carbohydrate, calories and other nutrients contained in the food.

Aside from nutritional values, the nutrition facts label also indicates the serving size, number of servings in the package and the % Daily Value (%DV). The % Daily Value indicates the percentage amount of nutrient the food contains based on 100% of the its daily requirement. The %DV is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

These values and information help guide the user in their food choices in maintaining a healthy diet.

Calorie content of food was first measured by Wilbur O. Atwater in the late 1800s. Using a small cabin like device called a respiration calorimeter, Atwater began measuring the amount of heat and oxygen consumed and also the carbon dioxide given off by a person while eating.

Using these values, Atwater was able to record the amount of energy contained in thousands of food items. He also found that carbohydrates had 4 calories per gram and that proteins and fats contained about 9 calories per gram. This 4-9-4 rule is at the heart of how nutrition facts labels are determined today.

The Nutrition Facts label hasn't been updated since 1994 despite advancements in nutrition science, current lifestyle of the average person, new eating habits, and the rise of obesity cases.

Updating the Nutrition Facts Label

The Nutrition Facts label was introduced 20 years ago and provides consumers with important information, including: the serving size, the number of servings in the package, the number of calories per serving, and the amount of nutrients for each serving of a packaged food. However, research has shown that consumers often miscalculate the number of calories and the nutritional content of products that have two or more servings per container but are usually consumed in a single eating occasion.

Two nutrition labeling changes could have the potential to make nutritional content information easier to understand: 1) dual-column information that details single serving and total package nutrition information, and 2) declaring nutritional information for the entire container.

Amy M. Lando, MPP, and Serena C. Lo, PhD, of the Food and Drug Administration's, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, College Park, MD, conducted an online study with more than 9,000 participants to measure consumers' accuracy in using modified versions of the Nutrition Facts label and to assess their perceptions of how useful, trustworthy, and helpful the label was.

Says Ms. Lando, "FDA commissioned this experimental study to look at whether different ways of presenting the serving size and nutrition information on the Nutrition Facts label might help consumers. In particular we were interested in studying products that have two servings per container but that are customarily consumed in a single eating occasion."

Video: ChemMatters: The Science Behind Calories and Nutrition Facts Labels

Study participants evaluated nine modified Nutrition Facts labels and the current label format for four fictitious products (two frozen meals and two grab-and-go bags of chips). The labels were classified into three groups. The first group of labels used a single-column format to display information for products with two servings per container; the second group used versions of a dual-column format to display information for products with two servings per container; and the third group used single-column formats that listed the contents of the product as a single, large serving.

The study team also tested whether changes in formatting, such as enlarging the font size for the declaration of "Calories," removing the information on the number of calories from fat, or changing the wording for the serving size declaration, would be helpful to consumers in determining the calories and other nutrient information for a single serving and for the entire package.

Study investigators determined that participants could more accurately assess the number of calories or amount of fat or other nutrients per serving and in the entire package when a single, large serving per container format or a dual-column format was used.

"This research is just one step in understanding how some potential food label modifications might help consumers make better decisions. Ideally, we would like to see how these labels perform in a more realistic setting, such as in a grocery store, with actual packaged foods as opposed to large labels on a computer screen," concludes Dr. Lo. The Nutrition Facts label is only one tool that can help consumers make informed food choices and maintain healthy dietary practices, but it is a valuable tool so it's important to continue exploring ways to support effective use of the label for these purposes."

In an audio podcast accompanying the study, Ms. Lando and Dr. Lo discuss their study methodology, the labeling they tested, and study results and implications.


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