Front Row

Nutrition Facts: Big changes coming?

By Jack Kenny | July 21, 2014

The US government and Big Food have their own ideas about nutrient info.

Nutrition Facts panels appear on every food label and package sold in the United States. With one exception, these have remained the same, in terms of content and appearance, since the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated their existence in 1993. This year, people in the food trade and allied fields are closely studying the FDA’s proposed revisions to the nutritional information panels, a significant overhaul that is earning praise from consumer advocates and condemnation from the food industry, particularly from the group that is known colloquially as Big Food.

It might be surprising to some, but apparently 61.5 percent of American shoppers use the Nutrition Facts panels to guide them in making purchasing decisions, according to the American Dietetic Association. That number was arrived at from research performed in the middle of the previous decade, so it could be higher today.

Big Food is a benefactor of the label converting industry, and so is the FDA. Food labels get printed and reprinted every day, but a redesign is a big deal. The changes proposed in the Nutrition Facts panels will mean a reworking of every food package in the USA. But the cost to the food business will involve more than that, though few seem to know just how much as of today.

Michael R. Taylor, the deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary at the FDA, has been extensively quoted as saying that the cost to the food and related industries of switching to the new labels would be around $2.3 billion over 20 years. The benefits to the public health over the same period are estimated by the FDA at $20 to $30 billion.

“Two billion dollars – that is what FDA estimates the food industry will spend to comply with proposed changes to the iconic Nutrition Facts label. That’s about all we know for sure.” So wrote Bruce Silverglade, an attorney with Olssen Frank Weeda Terman Matz, a Washington, DC, law firm active in the agriculture, food, drug and other industries. “The agency says the new information will provide $20-$30 billion in benefits to consumers by the year 2035, primarily by lowering risk of diet-related diseases and associated health care costs. Similar predictions were made when FDA finalized its original regulations for nutrition labeling in 1994, but they didn’t materialize.”

Label manufacturers who supply the food sector of the economy can estimate the client’s cost of printing the new labels without much difficulty, given the appropriate inputs. For flexographic reproduction it will mean prepress time, output of new plates and possibly different dies. For gravure the expense for engraved cylinders is a high initial cost, though that is factored into the extremely long runs that such tooling can endure. Food labels produced using digital presses have no plate costs.

At this early stage in the proposal – comments were solicited by FDA and these are being studied now – it’s hard to say what other costs are to be borne by industry. The proposed changes in the Nutrition Facts panel might cause some food manufacturers to change their marketing practices, anywhere from a tweak to an overhaul. Pricing, always an active ingredient, will come under further scrutiny. The package itself might come in for a complete makeover (Have you noticed that at some point in the recent past a pint of ice cream dropped to 14 ounces?)

Even more significant could be reformulations of the products inside the packages to present a better face, so to speak, on the Nutrition Facts panel. This could well be one of the biggest unknowns in the entire cost picture.

What’s on the label?
The Nutrition Facts panel changes are divided into two basic parts. One of them proposes to update nutrition information based on current scientific knowledge, and to redesign the label to highlight certain information that the FDA considers to be important. Foremost among these is calories. The second part covers changes to serving size requirements and labeling for certain package sizes.

The proposed new label will display calories per serving in a type size large enough to be read by shoppers of a certain age without their spectacles. There’s no question about those calories, no way for them to be hidden. Another design change will relocate the percentage of daily values (%DV) from the left side of the panel to the right, immediately adjacent to the ingredient in question.

The proposed change in serving size requirements is probably the most significant change recommended. When I read a nutrient panel – and I do so more and more – I tend to chuckle at the part that indicates serving size. I double it to be realistic. The FDA apparently thinks like I do and proposes to change serving size requirements “to reflect how people eat and drink today, which has changed since serving sizes were first established 20 years ago. By law, the label information on serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what they “should’ be eating.” In addition, it proposes “that packaged foods, including drinks, that are typically eaten in one sitting be labeled as a single serving and that calorie and nutrient information be declared for the entire package. For example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda, typically consumed in a single sitting, would be labeled as one serving rather than as more than one serving.

For certain packages that are larger and could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings, manufacturers would have to provide “dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calories and nutrient information. Examples would be a 24-ounce bottle of soda or a pint of ice cream. This way, people would be able to easily understand how many calories and nutrients they are getting if they eat or drink the entire package at one time.

Get ready for dual columns, folks
Any changes that emerge to the labels will take time, as is common with government activity. Meanwhile, Big Food is not sitting on its hands. Earlier this year it announced a media campaign to promote its own nutrient labeling project for the front of packages (FOP). The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, two large groups that represent major food companies and retailers, unveiled its $50 million scheme called “Facts Up Front,” a voluntary program.

It’s too early to tell whether the Facts Up Front campaign will have an impact on the future of packaging, but certainly the FDA’s proposed changes in the nutrition panel could affect its progress.

Facts Up Front would place four graphic icons on the front of a food and beverage label – for calories, sodium, sugars, and saturated fat. The industry argues that this will make the information much more accessible to consumers, who can see it from the shopping aisle without having to handle the package to view the Nutrition Facts.

Bruce Silverglade, the lawyer whose firm represents food companies, had this to say in an interview with Politico: “The general view in the industry is that nutrition information has really moved to the front of the pack. What FDA is doing is essentially proposing a new model of an old dinosaur.”

It might be of interest to some that in the 1990s Silverglade was director of legal affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that was instrumental in the creation of the Nutrition Facts panel.

Whatever comes to pass, it is certain that food label converters in the USA will have plenty of work ahead of them. It’s worth spending time learning about the proposed changes and discussing them among managers, so that when the client is faced at last with the packaging redesign, the converter will have answers to questions thought out in advance.

The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at