Late this month, the FDA announced updates to the nutrition facts panel that appears on the back of all packaged foods — and there are some major changes with implications for population health management.
Changes are coming -- with an expected $2 billion pricetag
Along with calories, fat, protein, fiber, and sodium, the new labels will also tell people how much sugar has been added to a processed food, and how much potassium and vitamin D — two nutrients many people don’t get enough of — the food contains. They will also include updated calorie information. For instance, the daily value for fiber will be 28 grams, up from 25 grams.
Serving sizes will also change, to reflect what people actually eat, not what nutritionists and dieticians think they should eat. For example, a serving of soda will increase from eight ounces to 12 ounces.
The changes are expected to cost the food industry about $2 billion.
What's the buzz about?
The American Medical Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics praised the updates, saying the inclusion of added sugars would help to prevent debilitating chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
However, Tamara Melton, a dietician nutritionist and academy spokesperson, says the serving size change is not consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate recommendation, which the academy supports. Still, Melton, who runs LaCarte Wellness in Atlanta, says nutritionists will be able to work with the serving size change in educating consumers, because a lot of their work revolves around the nutrition label.
Melton believes the new labels will impact consumer behavior, because “people are extremely interested in labels.” She notes, for instance, the response when trans fats were added to the label was just "one small change," adding, "I definitely think people are going to notice this, because it’s a big change to the label.”
A recent FDA survey would also seem to confirm that, finding half of adults surveyed said they check the Nutrition Facts label when buying food or beverages all or most of the time.
The change could affect consumers' purchasing habits
Some experts worry the tweaked labels, while aiding already food-conscious consumers, will do little to help those who most need it. In a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health, a group of researchers argue that making a real impact requires not just labels, but real-life, relatable information, such as how many minutes of running it will take to burn off a soda.
That could change with the increasing availability of mobile apps Lose It! and Zipongo. The programs have the support of many nutritionists and doctors, who recommend them to patients who are trying to lose weight or manage medical conditions that are affected by diet.
“People are now able to, at their fingertips, pull up so much information about things like food and ingredients,” says Melton. “Not only can they track the macronutrients, protein, fat and calories and carbohydrates, but those apps also give them a gauge of ‘should I be taking in more calories or less calories’ and ‘do I have too much sodium in my diet.’”
She says she has seen peoples’ awareness of what they are eating increase with the use of nutrition apps. “It makes them feel more empowered.”
“By changing the food environment day in and day out, you have a sustainable outcome,” says Zipongo founder and CEO Jason Langheier.
Zipongo offers its nutrition app through wellness platforms at large, self-insured companies. An employee feeds in information such as biometrics, allergies, food preferences and eating goals (e.g., lose weight, control blood pressure, avoid glucose) and, with the aid of algorithms, the app pops out a list of relevant and appropriate recipes. Once a meal schedule is set up, the app will prepare grocery lists and transfer purchases over to the customer’s grocery loyalty card.
The meal plan currently has 1.5 million recipes and connects with discounts at all of the major grocery chains in the U.S.
Langheier calls the FDA’s nutrition labeling update a “very positive step forward,” with ramifications beyond individual consumer food choices. “What it really does is it makes the data available digitally off of the label so that large service vendors and restaurants and others now can use that data and guide the chef to make different food decisions,” he says. “This will drive a fundamental change in the food environment looking forward.”
Knowledge is power
With Lose It!, users input certain personal information and the app designs a program based on a calorie budget and their weight goals. Members can track their daily food intake, log their calories, connect with activity trackers and share their experiences with online communities of people going through similar weight-loss journeys.
“What’s exciting about the technology is that the consumer is really learning the nutrition habits and behaviors that impact their overall health,” says Elyse Winer, Lose It!’s vice president of marketing, who notes the program is based on the idea of sustainable lifestyle changes.
Since 2008, the app has helped 25 million people lose more than 47 million pounds around the world, Winer says, adding that doctors recommend it to their patients because it’s so accessible and easy to use. “Consumers are coming into the app and then completely reversing chronic conditions like diabetes, going off medications,” she adds.
A number of major hospitals and institutions, including Johns Hopkins, the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Tennessee, are using Lose It! to track patients’ nutritional data outside the traditional clinical trial setting.
The company continues to expand the features to incorporate new trends, feedback from members and behavioral science, Winer says. For example, Lose It! recently started to localize food databases for international regions where it markets the app, and it added a premium feature that provides “how to” content from health and fitness experts and writers.
Marketing the change
Melton expects to see the biggest change in consumer behavior when the marketing from food companies changes to conform to the recommendations on the new labels. “We saw that with trans fat,” she says, “When marketing changes occur, the population itself is going to change with the way they interact with food and how they decide what they’re going to eat.”