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FDA Plans Changes to Nutrition Labels, but Will Anyone Read Them?

On May 20, the FDA finally unveiled long-awaited changes to the trusty and omnipresent Nutrition Facts labels Americans rely on for information regarding their food. Over the past twenty years, the minimalist, black-and-white label served as a guide of sorts helping consumers make more informed decisions regarding their food choices. The agency made a few notable changes, kept some things the same and added new criteria for others.

According to the FDA, the “iconic” look of the Nutrition Facts will remain. Companies will be required to provide information about added sugars and update information regarding Daily Values for existing categories. Vitamin D and potassium daily values will also be required for food products. Most of the changes were made to address new scientific thinking on various nutritional aspects of the American diet gathered over the past 20 years.

The real question is – will anybody read them? And no, the title of this blog post is not referencing the 943-page Federal Register notice or the accompanying 170-page notice regarding what a true “serving size” really is.

The answer to that question may be a bit disheartening to Robert Califf and the rest of the FDA. According to the NPD Group, the proportion of U.S. consumers who read the Nutrition Facts label is on the decline. At present, 24% of consumers currently don’t look at the label, compared to 15% just a decade ago. For those who do check the label, sugars are the most important item, followed by calories, sodium, total fat, and total carbohydrates.

It remains to be seen how the new labels will affect consumer decision making and practices. Are fewer consumers concerned about the Nutrition Facts label because the daily values are no longer representative of what a “healthy meal” is, or are American consumers less concerned about their health? Judging by the myriad social media posts I see every day focusing on healthy meals that are delicious, I’d have to argue that it’s the former. I believe the inclusion of added sugars will be a driving force in the new label, and the NPD Group survey reinforces this belief. Still, this could be a real headache for food companies: replacing sugar by transitioning to other ingredients is not an easy task for food scientists.

Updating existing Nutrition Facts labels to the new format will be a grandiose effort in and of itself. To help with these efforts, the Food Institute and OFW Law will host the annual U.S. Food Labeling Seminar on October 26, which will offer time-sensitive information and the knowledge needed to understand FDA’s updates to nutrition labels. We will offer up more information regarding registration later in the year, but keep your eyes peeled for updates regarding this seminar to ensure you are compliant come July 26, 2018.