You hear all the time how important it is to read the nutrition label. You are also told that you should stick to foods with five ingredients or less and never eat a food if you can’t pronounce the ingredients. The FDA Nutrition Facts label reflects the ingredients, calories, and micronutrients in packaged foods. Nutrition labels, which are required in most countries, are meant to help consumers make quick, informed food choices. However, analyzing the label can be daunting process.
As mandated by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, serving sizes must reflect what people typically eat, not what people should be eating. The FDA Nutrition Facts label has not changed since its introduction in 1990 and current serving sizes account for about half of what is actually consumed today. For example, the current serving size for ice cream is half of a cup and contains around 150 calories. In reality, the average American consumes about twice as much ice cream in one sitting, doubling the calorie content to about 300 calories.
Mass confusion over nutrition information has led to the proposal for a new label, which the FDA hopes to introduce in the next two years. It will feature new fonts and formatting intended to help people better understand what they’re eating. However, a new report suggests the updated label might actually increase how much food Americans eat.
Ideally, the new serving size information will reveal to consumers the exorbitant amount of calories a “typical” serving contains, encouraging them to eat a smaller portion. Unfortunately, this report demonstrates otherwise. In one study, researchers asked consumers what the serving size information on the label refers to. Less than 20 percent of people correctly identified the information as the amount of food typically consumed. The other 80 percent thought it recommended how much they should eat.
In another study, researchers asked people waiting in line for a basketball game to participate in a taste test for chocolate chip cookies. They gave each participant a sheet with information about the cookies and told them to take as many as they would normally eat for a snack. Half were given a sheet with the current Nutrition Facts label, and the other half received the updated Nutrition Facts label. Those who saw the proposed label ate 41 percent more cookies than those who received the current version.
To the delight of public health advocates, eating healthy and leading an active lifestyle has become increasingly trendy. With that, questions about what to eat and how much to eat are more pressing than ever. The Nutrition Facts label has the potential to help people across the country make healthier eating decisions. It will only succeed, however, if consumers can easily and correctly interpret the information.
The accompanying slideshow is provided by fellow Daily Meal editorial staff member Dan Myers.