Nutrition facts labels to change

Central Oregon dietitians weight in

By Tara Bannow / The Bulletin / @tarabannow

Published Mar 6, 2014 at 12:09AM

More realistic serving sizes. Labeling added sugars. Larger fonts for calorie counts.

Chances are, you got an earful on those topics last week after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unveiled proposed changes to its Nutrition Guidelines, a chart issued two decades ago that’s slapped on the back of packaged food items to let people know how healthy or unhealthy they are.

Registered dietitians in Bend reacted to last Thursday’s news with excitement and praised most of the proposed tweaks as things that will help people make better food choices.

Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said in a conference call with reporters last week that the FDA has been eyeing changes to nutrition labels since 2003, but it’s a complicated process that requires gathering input from a variety of stakeholders.

“I think we’ve had a sense of urgency about it for quite some time,” he said. “It just takes time to produce a product of this complexity and depth of analysis.”

The proposed changes are now in a 90-day comment period, and the FDA says the changes won’t be implemented for at least two years.

Here are the local experts’ takes on the highlights:

More realistic serving sizes

Among the biggest changes, and the one that’s being widely hailed by nutrition advocates as a positive one, is the promise of more realistic serving sizes. Many experts say serving sizes are wildly misleading, often listing foods in small packages people would normally think hold a single serving in 2½ or 3 servings. Under the proposed rule, serving sizes would need to reflect what people actually eat from a container.

Lori Brizee, a registered dietitian in Bend, said a client recently boasted about the low sodium content in her chicken hot dogs until Brizee pointed out that the nutrition content listed was for a single hot dog, and the sodium content was actually pretty high.

In another case, Brizee said she knew a kid who would often have a snack-sized bag of chips and a 20-ounce bottle of soda. When she talked to the kid’s mother about her daughter’s snacks, she realized that the mother assumed that the entire chips and soda were single serving containers.

Actually, the nutrition facts on the bag of chips broke it into 3 servings and the bottle of soda was 2½ servings.

LuAnn Lehnertz, a registered dietitian with St. Charles Health System, said food manufacturers want to make their portions as small as possible on the labels so that the food can appear healthier. A good example is spray butters, which say “0 calories” and “0 grams of fat,” yet a major ingredient is oil.

“Well, how could it be fat-free? It’s because they only say five pumps,” she said. “If you actually poured a teaspoon out, it would not be the same.”

When the package is smaller, most people will just assume the nutrition facts cover the entire package, which they should, Lehnertz said.

“I think once they start looking at the serving size and what the label says, it’s a feeling of being tricked,” she said.

Bigger calorie labels

The FDA is proposing a greater emphasis on calories by making the number of calories per serving bigger and bolder on nutrition labels. For calorie counters, that may be all they need to read, Lehnertz said.

“If they don’t want to spend their calories on it, there’s no reason to look on the rest of the label,” she said.

This was among the first things Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, listed in a panel discussion last week as something his organization wants to see in the new labels. The White House, especially under the leadership of first lady Michelle Obama, has advocated for reducing the dramatic obesity levels in the U.S., and Jacobson said this would be one way to help address that issue.

In addition to the larger calorie numbers, Jacobson said he hoped the FDA would get rid of the line that lists the number of calories from fat, which he said would make the labels easier to comprehend. The proposal eliminates that line.

New line for added sugar

Perhaps due to accumulating research around the detriments of consuming too much sugar, the FDA has proposed adding a new line to its nutrition labels for sugar that was added to the food as opposed to occurring naturally in things like milk or fruit.

Nutritionists aren’t generally worried about the natural sugar in milk, fruit or other foods, but they are concerned about foods with large amounts of sugar added to them to make them taste better.

As far as what people should do with that number, Lehnertz said, it’s all about balance. You don’t need to avoid foods with added sugar altogether, but perhaps pick the yogurt that contains only the natural sugar from blackberries over the one that contains added sugar.

The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 25 grams or 6.5 teaspoons of added sugar per day. For men, the AHA says no more than 38 grams or 9.5 teaspoons.

Brizee said she thinks the added sugar number will be especially important when it comes to breakfast cereals. In a cereal like Raisin Bran, for example, much of the sugar comes from the raisins, a natural source.

CSPI was pushing for sugar content to be expressed in teaspoons — a measurement Jacobson said people tend to better understand — as opposed to grams. The FDA did not propose changing the sugar measurement.

New lines for potassium, vitamin D

The FDA wants to replace vitamins A and C on its labels with vitamin D and potassium, a move local experts applaud.

Julie Hood Gonsalves, associate professor of human biology at Central Oregon Community College and a registered dietitian, said that while including potassium is a great change, she would like to see sodium and potassium listed next to one another to get a sense for the ratio between the two. This is because potassium can blunt the hypertensive effects of sodium, and she thinks people should try to eat the same amounts of potassium and sodium.

“If you’re eating a lot of potassium, it negates what the sodium is doing,” she said.

Percentage of daily value moves to the left

The proposed changes include updating the daily values for various nutrients based on new research, and would shift the percent of daily value, which tells people what proportion of each nutrient is contained in the food based on a 2,000-calorie diet, to the left on the labels.

But some local dietitians said they’d just as soon see the FDA get rid of the percentage of daily value altogether. In Lehnertz’s mind, it’s just too confusing for people. In every class she teaches, people tend to think the percentage measures the content within a serving of that food, not within their total daily needs.

She would like to see something much simpler.

“If they were to put a percent of daily value, it should say ‘significant’ or ‘not significant,’” she said. “Like, ‘Yes, it’s a good one,’ or, ‘No, it’s not a source.’ That might be a little bit easier than a percentage number. I think those percentages do not do much for most people.”

Likewise, Brizee said, she thinks percent of daily value — while maybe helpful to some — for most people is “useless.” That’s because the number of carbohydrates and daily needs vary wildly from person to person.

Hood Gonsalves said she actually doesn’t put too much weight into nutrition labels and would rather see an emphasis placed on a more holistic view of food that would emphasize one’s overall health. She thinks a good strategy might be to place a MyPlate chart on food packages that includes perhaps a colored-in portion with the category it fulfills. MyPlate is a chart produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that’s divided into sections for grains, vegetables, fruits, protein and dairy that are sized according to the proportion of one’s diet they should constitute.

Others, such as Jacobson, have proposed ideas like Lehnertz’s, in which packages would get more simple classification labels that tell consumers whether the foods are healthy overall — a green star for a good food, for example.

But Hood Gonsalves said there’s always controversy in science, and it would be difficult to simplify foods to that level.

“The scary thing to that is, ‘Who’s in charge?,’ you know?” she said. “If somebody is paying, for example.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0304,

tbannow@bendbulletin.com