By Lucas Witman
At a press conference on February 27, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that the Food and Drug Administration is proposing major updates to the nutrition facts labels for packaged foods. If passed, the FDA’s proposed revisions will be the first changes made to nutrition facts labeling since 1994. The agency is currently soliciting public feedback on the revisions until at least June 2, although that deadline could be extended.
“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” said First Lady Michelle Obama in a press statement announcing the proposed changes. “This is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”
If the current revisions are approved, the FDA will mandate a series of revisions both to the form and content of nutrition facts labels. Among these, packaged foods will have to declare their added sugar content, as well as potassium and vitamin D. Vitamins A and C, not considered nutrients of public health concern, will no longer be required to be listed on the label. A major change will be made to requirements regarding the serving sizes for many products, with companies being required now to list the serving sizes based on what most people actually eat today as opposed to what they “should” be eating. In addition, the format of the label will be refreshed to boldly emphasize the calorie amount, serving size and percent daily values of certain nutrients in the product.
Although not everyone is excited with the FDA’s proposal, a number of specialty food companies have expressed their pleasure that changes are being made to the decades-old nutrition facts labels currently in place. “At the end of the day, I want to believe that folks weren’t trying to be misleading, but let’s face it—that’s not the world that we live in,” said Janie Hoffman, CEO and founder of Mamma Chia, maker of chia seed-infused beverages. “I’m delighted for the changes. It would be great to be working on a level playing field.”
Nadia Leonelli, Co-founder of Element Snacks, maker of healthful rice and corn cake desserts, is happy with any move that compels food companies to be more open about what exactly goes into their products. “For us, being transparent is part of our business model. It’s not just a high level philosophy. It’s not just talk. We believe that by being transparent we can show who we are to others,” she said. “When companies are more transparent they are able to engage the consumer on a deeper level … We don’t have anything to hide, and transparency will give us a competitive advantage.”
Perhaps the biggest change that food companies will have to comply with when it comes to changing their nutrition facts labels concerns the serving sizes currently listed on many food packages. Dr. Robert Post, former head of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and current Chief Science Officer for nutrition communications consulting company FoodMinds, estimates that 20-25 percent of the 700,000 labeled products in the U.S. marketplace will undergo a change in serving size. “Serving sizes are being increased to reflect current consumer eating patterns,” said Post. “We know consumers are eating differently today than they were in 1993. For example, we know today that consumers are eating bagels and muffins that are larger than they were in 1993. We know those reference amounts that are used to calculate serving size are different.”
Hoffman has been fighting misleading serving sizes at Mamma Chia since the company’s inception, when she was originally told her bottles contained 1.2 servings. “From day one, I insisted that a bottle was a full serving size, because that’s what it is. How many people really leave two ounces in the bottle?” she asked. “The idea of the serving sizes changing—I think that’s fantastic. That kind of transparency is something that we are delighted about and have been doing since day one.”
Another change that some food industry leaders are particularly excited for and others concerned about is the requirement that companies list the added sugars in their products. With nutrition experts stating that eaters today consume too many calories from sugar, it has become important to inform shoppers that they are purchasing a product to which sugar has been added in some form.
“At Mamma Chia, we sweeten our beverages with fruit juice, but also less than 1 tablespoon of organic agave nectar. We always wanted to call out that we are lightly sweetened. We’re not trying to hide anything,” said Hoffman.
“We are happy to list our five grams of sugar as ‘added’. Given our product is mostly rice and chocolate or cream, we want people to understand this is a snack and not their main meal, and if they want zero sugar we are not for you,” added Leonetti.
Although it is unlikely that food companies will be required to adapt their nutrition facts labels for at least several years, many in the food industry are already looking at what it will take for them to make the change. A number of challenges are expected, especially for smaller companies with limited operations.
Perhaps the biggest anticipated challenge is the practical concern of how a company will go about recalculating the nutritional content of its products and how much it will cost it to redesign the label. This is a particular concern for Element Snacks, a new company that designed its first label just months ago. “We’re a little company. We just made labels. We are eight months old. We made our full size packaging eight months ago, and we were hoping it would last. It won’t,” said Leonelli. “We are trying to get the most expensive packaging we can afford. We invested a lot of money in the packaging, and now it’s going to be all garbage and need to be redone from scratch.”
Another more philosophical concern some food industry professionals have when it comes to redesigning their labels is how best to communicate this change to their customers while at the same time maintaining consumer confidence in the brand. “How do you communicate with the customers who really look to these companies that have iconic, premium, craft products?” asked Dr. Post. He explained that companies need to plan to communicate these changes so that the consumer has continuity with the product, his or her expectations are continued to be met and the product has continuity in the marketplace.
“Transparency is a critical issue not only with government legislation but to build customer confidence in your brand. If they are not confident in what’s in your product, they cannot have loyalty to your company,” said Michelle Duerst, Marketing and P.R. Director for Selerant, a regulatory software provider for the food industry. Selerant serves food companies looking to prepare themselves for the nutrition facts label change. Duerst argues that it is vital that food companies make their labels as clear and transparent as possible, so that the consumer knows the company has nothing to hide.
For Duerst, one solution food companies have for increasing the transparency of their products is to offer even more information about their nutritional content than what is required. She recommends that companies include QR codes on their packaging that can be scanned, linking consumers to additional information about ingredients and nutrition content, but also information about potential allergens, GMO ingredients and more. “There is a capability for companies to do more with labeling,” she said.
For companies that are concerned about what the FDA’s proposed changes mean to them, the best way to deal with potential challenges may be to prepare themselves as far in advance as possible for distant deadlines. “It’s always my advice to think proactively. We’re talking about proposed rules … A final rule will be developed based on public comments,” said Dr. Post. “All of this could take a year or a year and a half. I think we can expect that more or less these changes will occur. It could be 2017, but that shouldn’t stop companies from planning and planning forward.”
Although many in the food industry are as yet unconvinced that the new nutrition facts labels will yield a significant benefit to public health, since a large number of consumers choose not to read these labels at all, there is hope that these changes will at least aid those who are making a concerted effort to plan their diets in an informed way.
“A greater percentage of consumers today are using the nutrition facts label, because they are looking for lower sugar or lower calories,” said Dr. Post. “This is one important tool for helping consumers make an informed healthy choice or simply an informed choice at the supermarket.”
“Hopefully by making the nutritional information clearer, it will result in consumers making healthier choices,” added Hoffman. “I think knowledge is power. In order to make an informed decision, we have to have that information more clearly defined. I certainly think it will be helpful to those consumers who are interested in making healthier choices.”