Regulators must first admit defeat on nutrition labels to improve

Regulators must first admit defeat on nutrition labels to improve
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The new Canadian Food Guide has made waves up north by deemphasizing serving sizes. As one bariatric medicine specialist said in Canada’s National Post, “Nobody weighed and measured their foods. Nobody really followed it, nobody knew what a serving size was. They were ridiculous and idiotic.” 

Instead, the new guide focuses on proportions (as opposed to serving sizes) with an emphasis on eating more plant-based foods. If only we could do something similar with the ineffective U.S. food label, which is long overdue for a major rethink.

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We often fail to admit when something is not working or when we or our organizations are wrong. When others admit fault, we sometimes fail to appreciate their actions. A quick scan of the news offers plenty of examples.

So it’s nice to see that Health Canada’s guide is now geared more toward healthy eating and lifestyles, rather than focusing too much on specific foods or largely useless serving sizes. The Canadian guide is similar to the U.S. government’s “MyPlate” program, which replaced the old food pyramid diagrams. 

Some of the new Canadian recommendations seem surprisingly easy to use. For example, they suggest that people cook at home more often to save money and take more control over what they eat.

They also suggest eating with others more often to “enjoy quality time together,” “share food traditions” and “explore new healthy foods that you might not normally try.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the guidelines, even beyond the meat and dairy industries whose products are partially marginalized.

Chris Selley of the National Post, who praised the guide as an example of evidence-based policy, still made light of the patronizing tone: “If you struggle to drink as much water as the guide thinks you should, have you considered that you can ‘drink it hot or cold?’” He also pointed out that “an exercise like this is bound to produce a few silly, infantilizing recommendations.” 

Patronizing beats confusing. And when it comes to the U.S. nutrition facts food label, which, unlike the MyPlate guide, accompanies the food Americans buy, confusing is what we get. Regulators continue to fiddle with font sizes, stick with convoluted serving sizes and update percent daily values (%DVs) that most consumers find incomprehensible and thus useless.

Want to track what you eat? Well, we have a new footnote to explain %DVs: “The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much of a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”

Unless you plan to stop and do some math every time you grab a new item on your grocery trip, what exactly are you expected to do with that information?

In an understatement, nutrition researcher Eric Matheson said“I think people really have a hard time interpreting what food labels mean.” One survey by the American Heart Association found that “95 percent of shoppers at least sometimes look for healthy options, but only a little over a quarter say it's ‘easy’ to actually find healthy foods.”

In fact, one of the original goals for nutrition labeling was to reduce consumption of saturated fat. But the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report of 2015 found that saturated fat is still “overconsumed by the U.S. population," and USDA researchers concluded that the labels had "no effect on dietary intakes of total fat, saturated fat, or cholesterol intake.” 

Unlike Canadian officials, who were willing to revamp their food guide, U.S. regulatory agencies seem unable to confront the obvious confusion over food labels. There are public health consequences stemming from those failures. 

The Centers for Disease Control reports that now, “Almost 1 in 5 (12 million) children and more than 1 in 3 (78 million) adults in the United States struggle with obesity, causing $147 billion in obesity-related health care costs each year.”

When the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 was passed, 6.2 million Americans, or 2.52 percent of the population, had diabetes. 15 years later, that figure jumped to over 23 million (7.4 percent). Childhood diabetes has tripled.

While health risks associated with poor diets are increasing, consumers’ use of the food label is declining. Perhaps there are other approaches such as comprehensive front-of-package symbols to denote healthier choices or new technologies that will suggest better, more individualized healthy choices. Either way, admitting the current approach isn’t working is the first step.

Richard Williams is a senior affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a former director for social sciences at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in the Food and Drug Administration.