STRANGE CONFESSION TIME: I'm A Compulsive Food-Label Reader And I'm Totally OK With That

The FDA is proposing some controversial changes to that familiar "nutrition facts" label, like accounting for the fact that NO ONE eats just a half-cup of ice cream. Are you into it?
Publish date:
March 28, 2014
fat, food, eating, diet, food politics

I admit it: I’m a food-label reader. I have been for as long as I can remember -- at least since my first weight-loss diet, adopted at my pediatrician's prompting when I was 8 years old. Then, and throughout my youth and my teens and a little bit of my twenties, I read labels to track down all the important information on fat and calories, to determine whether said food was an acceptable food for me to eat, or a “bad” food that I would have to feel guilty about, and then atone for.

I’ve since dispensed with the notion that foods themselves have nutrition-based morality attached to them, virtue applied in inverse proportion to fat grams and caloric values. But I’ve never dropped the label-reading habit; anytime I pick up a package in the grocery store, I instinctively flip it over and look for the familiar “Nutrition Facts” box, and I also read the ingredients.

These days it’s more about trying to balance heavily processed foods with whole ones (a personal choice based on my consciousness of my own body; I still believe all people should be empowered to eat whatever and however they want without guilt, whether that’s obsessive paleo or McDonald’s cheeseburgers) and just wanting to be broadly aware of what I’m eating.

My husband, on the other hand, never read a nutrition label in his life before we met. Our first conversation on the subject, years ago, went something like this:

D: “How many servings are in this package?”

Me: “Check the nutrition label.”

D: “The what?”

Me: “... The big white box on the back that says ‘Nutrition Facts’?”

D: “Oh! That’s useful! Do all food companies put these on their packages?”

Me: “Dude, it’s the law. It’s mandated by the FDA.”

I was, in fact, straight-up gobsmacked that a person could like, LIVE IN THE WORLD AS AN ADULT and never have noticed a nutrition label before. This realization that not everyone had a period in early childhood in which they learned to obsessively comb through the ingredients list and count up calories and percentages should have occurred to me a long time ago, but it was something that had been such a stealthily omnipresent part of my life that I hadn’t even been aware of it.

In my case, though, it’s not a terrible habit -- I LIKE knowing what I’m eating, even if what I’m eating is sugar and fat held together with partially hydrogenated oils. And I'm glad to report that today, calories, sugars and fat grams are no longer numbers that send me into spirals of self-loathing, guilt and overall despair.

And it's true, these labels ARE useful. Being chronically borderline anemic (thanks, monster menstrual cycles) I like to look for foods that are high in iron. I like to know when stuff is a good source of fiber, because fiber is just awesome. And, like a lot of people these days, I like know when stuff has trans fat in it.

Trans fat (which is artificially produced via the hydrogenation of oils, a substance that improves a product’s shelf stability and freshness) has drawn a lot of critical press in recent years, as there’s been a load of research demonstrating that trans fat is bad news bears for your cholesterol levels and your heart. I’m fortunate in that I have always had ass-kicking cholesterol results, but for many people this is a serious concern, and one that can lead to a load of scary health issues down the line. And since I don’t know that I’ll have fabulous cholesterol forever, it’s something I pay attention to as well.

The evidence on this was strong enough that the Food and Drug Administration made a new rule in 2003 -- to become effective in 2006 -- stating that food labels must reveal trans fat amounts specifically. Some cities (Boston, New York) have banned the use of trans fats in restaurant preparation at the local level, and now the FDA is aiming to ban them nationwide, in both prepared and prepackaged foods, although naturally this idea is meeting with impassioned resistance from food giants like ConAgra.

It’s also not an especially popular idea amongst the public, either: a Pew research poll from November of last year found that 52 percent of respondents would oppose a trans fat ban in restaurants.

The problem is that the FDA label requirements are not totally precisely accurate -- in order to label itself as having 0g of trans fat under the current regulations, a food must have 0.5g or less of trans fat per serving. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think we can all agree that’s not TECHNICALLY zero.

Thus, the current labeling arrangement may be giving people the impression that they are not consuming any trans fat when that’s not the case (a tip: if you’re really serious about avoiding trans fat altogether, check the ingredients list for any “partially hydrogentated” oil*). And the FDA feels strongly enough that these fats are literally dangerous to try to act on it by banning them outright.

I’m telling this story to make the point that while nutrition labels can be useful, they aren’t always infallible.

Nevertheless, the FDA has recently proposed a label makeover -- the most significant since the current version’s inception in 1990 -- that makes a few interesting changes.

To start with, they want to make the total-calories-per-serving and serving-size numbers bigger. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I actually found this hilarious, as though people are disregarding caloric information simply because it’s too hard to read. But OK! Whatever you're into, FDA. They’d also be dropping that weird “calories from fat” line, which, I mean, I have never figured out what it was really for, and I’m pretty certain it’s just a relic from when low-fat diets were the big obsession.

But let’s move on to the more controversial of the proposed changes. For one, the FDA wants to require food manufacturers to list the amount of added sugar in their food. This means what it sounds like: that any sugars not naturally occurring in the product, but added to enhance flavor, would have to be listed separately. This is the FDA’s effort to confront research showing that many Americans are (however unwittingly) eating far more sugar than recommended.

We can expect the food industry to fight this pretty hard. Food manufacturers use added sugars for the same reasons as trans fat -- it makes potentially low-quality food more appealing. As of now, since the information has never been made public, most of us have no idea how much added sugar we’re consuming on a daily basis. Should those numbers start appearing on food labels -- and for good or ill -- I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that added sugar may follow trans fat into the anti-nutritional abyss.

Another change is controversial for very different reasons: The FDA wants to amend serving sizes to more accurately reflect the way people really eat. For example, the current serving size for ice cream is half a cup, and the FDA wants to increase that to a full cup, because evidently that’s what people actually eat. (I guess I’m an outlier for easily getting four servings out of a pint of ice cream. Interesting.)

Serving sizes for other foods would be trimmed -- like yogurt, facing a proposed cut from 8 to 6 ounces, since that’s how big most single-serving cups you find in the supermarket are. And a 20-ounce bottle of soda would no longer have that irritating “2.5 servings” or whatever on the label -- a single bottle would be one serving, because people tend to drink the whole thing.

Some will inevitably hate this idea, especially in context with stuff like ice cream and soda, and perceive it as buckling to an out-of-control Obese Lifestyle in the US. However, I think it’s important to note that the FDA is not mandating what people should or shouldn't here -- the recommended daily allowances of calories and other nutritional factors are not being increased (even though these numbers should also probably should be reassessed, for the same reason -- in real life, people are eating far more calories than the recommendation). The FDA is not suggesting anyone double their ice cream consumption. The intention, if the FDA is to be trusted, is simply to give people a more honest reflection of the calories they’re consuming.

I like food labels, and I think they’re important, speaking both as a person who wants to have reliable data on the food she’s eating, and because, at their best, they demand accountability from food manufacturers in the marketplace. While I support a person’s right to ignore this stuff entirely, I don’t believe there is such a thing as too much information -- let’s have it all out there, and we can decide what we want to know, and what we don’t, and whether it affects our purchases or our habits. So I’m pretty cool with these changes.

But how about you? Are you a label reader? Do these updates seem like a good idea to you?


* Weird fact: oil that is labeled as “fully” or “completely” hydrogenated is actually trans fat free -- it’s only “partially” that’s a problem. The wonders of chemistry!