Can A Better Nutrition Label Save Us?

April 25, 2016

Nutrition LabelAt any point in time there may be hundreds of research studies underway seeking to unlock the key to reversing the obesity epidemic gripping the United States and the rest of the world. But could the answer be as simple as a better nutrition label?

The food nutrition label is that long panel located on the back or side of a food package. It lists the food’s ingredients in order of volume, as well as the percentage of individual nutrients against the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for each. Although, it should be noted that the only item missing an RDA is sugar (wonder why that is?).

You might be surprised to learn that the food nutrition label as we know it today didn’t make its debut until the passage of the Nutrition Labeling And Education Act in 1990. While some of the contents of the nutrition label have changed over time, such as the introduction of trans fats, its basic format hasn’t altered much since it first came on the scene. But there is renewed effort underway to rethink the label’s format as a way to help consumers make wiser, healthier food choices that will support weight control and disease prevention.

The nutrition label arguably is in a fairly easy-to-read format (as it was intended by the law), but critics have claimed essential health information is easily missed because of its breadth and density. You can see their point – you might need a magnifying glass to read the labels on some smaller food packages.

To facilitate understanding of a food’s nutritional elements in order to support better nutritional choices, proponents of the food label format change have suggested:

  • Moving a handful of critical information related to weight and disease, such as sugar, fat, and sodium, to the front of the label.
  • Using a color coding system, such as a red-yellow-green traffic light pattern, to identify the food’s health risks
  • Including the amount of exercise it would take to burn the number of calories in the food

The thought behind the majority of these proposed changes is that people tend to ignore or reject anything that isn’t easy to scan (a long list of scienc-y sounding terms with weights and measures would fit that description). Proponents of the changes argue that research supports simpler, more visual cues about the contents of food. Pictures and colors will be more apt to grab attention than a bunch of boring words.

However, the idea to publish the food’s amount of required calorie-burning activity comes with some amount of controversy. Opponents of this approach claim that it suggests activity, and not food, is the main driver of weight loss, when it really should be the other way around (for the record, we agree with this too). But, if the information causes consumers to reconsider reaching for that can of sugary soda, could it actually do some good? Only additional research will give us the answer.

We know that losing weight and maintaining weight loss are easier said than done, but sometimes you find the greatest gains in the simplest of changes. A new food label could provide a welcome boost of support in our battle against the bulge.

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