New “Nutrition Facts” Label, New You?

I read this New York Times article yesterday (March 20, 2016) about the newly approved Nutrition Facts Label, which will be required on most products by July 2018. Here’s the gist (and a picture, below) from the article:

  • the new labels will show updated serving sizes, to reflect more accurately the portions Americans are actually eating,
  • the calories will be listed in big print, and
  • there will be an “added sugars” line listed under carbohydrates.

new nutrition facts label 2016Hmmm…how do I feel about this? Well, I agree we eat bigger portions, and too many calories. We definitely eat way too much sugar. And I believe looking for added sugars is a big step in the right direction. But I think there’s a better, easier way to eat less and avoid sugar. Avoid most foods with labels whenever possible! Eat real, whole foods and eat more simply. I know it’s not always that simple for many people. But changing the Nutrition Facts label does nothing to make it easier, in my opinion.

I can see why they are increasing the serving sizes on labels, but I’m just not sure it will help anything. Americans eat bigger portions than the serving sizes currently reflect, so as it stands on the current Nutrition Facts label, we have to do math to figure out calories and all the other nutrients for the amount we eat. But are we going to eat less if the only thing that’s changed is we don’t have to do the math? (Actually, isn’t it possible if we don’t have to spend time on the math, we might spend the time we saved eating more?) Yes, we can see how much we are eating at a glance, but even without the math, the numbers are meaningless or easy to avoid for most people, aren’t they? I mean, who wants to worry about the math and the numbers anyway??? Sometimes I eat a handful of pita chips (one of my weaknesses) and I never even look at the label. Gasp. And I call myself a dietitian. If the numbers won’t stop me, who will they stop?

I actually found myself sympathizing with the soda industry camp when they said the rule to add the “added sugar” line lacks scientific evidence. Now, hear me out…there is plenty of evidence that sugar sweetened beverages are associated with obesity. I’m not saying you should drink soda by any means. (And BTW, who doesn’t know soda has a ton of sugar in it??? How is this label going to make a difference when people already know that and drink it anyway?) The main problem I see is that replacing products containing “added sugars” with products containing other forms of carbohydrate could be just as unhealthy as the foods containing added sugars. That is, the soda industry representatives are right in that the science does not support the idea that an excess of other sugars (or any carbohydrates for that matter) are any better for you than soda. For example, choosing a product full of “natural sugars” like 100% fruit juice and drinking too much of it is not a healthy choice. Choosing a highly refined white flour product, like bread or pasta, that has “no added sugars” is definitely not a healthy choice. And what about honey, maple syrup, and agave? The science doesn’t support choosing them more frequently than any other form of sugar. Focusing on “added sugars” completely misses the mark and doesn’t tell the complete story: that excess carbohydrates of any kind are likely to be bad for your health.

Well, the Nutrition Facts label is merely a tool, not an education in nutrition. If you have a drill, you won’t necessarily know how to hang a picture. If you have a better Nutrition Facts label, you won’t necessarily know how to eat well for better health. So, I hope to help your understanding of nutrition more than a Nutrition Facts label alone ever could. Yes, there are times when you can’t or don’t want to eat whole, easy real foods. I get that. But I also get–and I’m sure you do, too–that changing the Nutrition Facts label is not enough to change the health of Americans.

The good news is we have all the information we need on the Nutrition Facts label as it stands. When I do buy products with labels, I skip over the calories on the label. Because if you are choosing the right foods (real, whole foods and fewer refined carbohydrates and sugar), you will automatically lower your calorie intake and feel satiated, without counting calories. I do linger at total carbohydrates, and fiber and sugars for a minute to assess the quantity and quality of carbohydrates, but I would argue the ingredient list is the most useful part of the whole label.

  • If a product has many ingredients (say more than about five, according to Mark Bittman in Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating), I avoid it.
  • If it has products that I feel are harmful, I avoid it. For example, any sources of trans fat.
  • If a product has ingredients I feel are unnecessary like food coloring or preservatives (especially if I can’t pronounce them) or if there’s an alternate fresh version that eliminates those ingredients, I avoid the product and choose the fresh version. For example, I never buy bottled lemon or lime juice; it takes only a minute to squeeze a lemon or lime with my handy citrus squeezer gadget, and it tastes better.
  • If a product has any of the 50+ names sugar goes by, I generally avoid it or when necessary only eat it once a month (or even less frequently). For example, my kids love baked beans, so if I don’t have time to make them from scratch, I buy one can and add a can of drained and rinsed pinto beans to them to make it go further. But again, it’s very seldom that we have baked beans. Ketchup and mayo are the condiment exceptions, I could try making my own, but until then, we don’t use enough ketchup or mayo to worry too much about the sugar they contain.

So, the bottom line is this: I wouldn’t wait with bated breath until July 2018; you can start now choosing whole, real foods and using the ingredient list to make better choices in the grocery store.

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