FDA’s Proposed Rules on Food Labeling

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has extended the commenting period to August 1st, 2014 for the proposed rules on food labeling (Docket ID: FDA-2012-N-1210).

I’ve written previously on the proposed rules. Here is a quick summary:

I applauded 3 major components of the ruling:

  1. Label added sugars in addition to natural sugars
  2. Addition of column on label to include both per serving and per package
  3. Highlight “calories”, “serving size” and “percent of daily value” through changes to the size, style, and position of font

And I questioned 1 component of the ruling:

  1. Revision of serving sizes of foods that can reasonably be consumed at one-eating occasion and updating, modifying, and establishing certain reference amounts customarily consumed. For example, this component would require that both a 12 oz bottle of soda and a 20 oz bottle of soda be labelled as a single serving.

I argued that this is a mistake for the following reasons:

  1. Research shows that people consume more when the container is larger. If we use the quantity of food or drink that is “reasonably consumed at one-eating occasion” or “customarily consumed” as a measure of what is safe, as is the implicit role of the FDA, then we fail to consider how a larger container may increase what is ordinarily consumed to levels that pose a health risk.

I suggested that new rule should reflect what is safe rather than what is “customarily consumed”. And, if the FDA insists that we use the quantity an average person consumes as a measure of what is safe, then we should at the least account for external factors (such as container size) that increase the point at which our body tells us we’re satisfied.

I pointed to 2 potential unintended consequences of this rule:

  1. Companies might discontinue smaller container sizes
  2. Consumers might choose larger containers over smaller containers with increased frequency

I’m revisiting this issue today after scanning the comments submitted thus far.

I found one submission from Behavioral Science and Regulation Group at Harvard that resonates with my concern. We both note that “serving size” is an implicit endorsement to consumers of what is an appropriate or healthy quantity. While I suggest the FDA use a different measure of “serving size” that is more in line with a healthful serving, the Harvard group suggests to change the wording of “serving size” to reduce implicit endorsement of healthfulness:

As the FDA acknowledges in its proposed rule, more than half of consumers perceive the term “serving size” to be a recommended serving size, not an amount customarily consumed. For those people that would, in the absence of a serving size, have eaten a small portion, the inclusion of a perceived serving size recommendation could lead them to eat more than they otherwise would. This is because these consumers believe that the FDA has implicitly endorsed the serving size as healthy. Consuming larger portion sizes is related to increased calorie consumption. While the rule’s revision of the serving size volumes and increased use of “whole package” labeling is appropriate and important, it will also exacerbate this problem, because the perceived recommendations will typically be for even larger portions […]

We suggest that the word “serving” and the phrase “serving size” be changed to avoid an implied endorsement. Changing “serving” to a word that does not suggest the context of a meal, like “unit” or “quantity,” may mitigate the endorsement effect.

This group from Harvard also endorses the FDA’s changes that use visual cues to increase clarity for the consumer:

The result is a nutrition label that behavioral science indicates will decrease the time consumers spend finding information, improve readability, focus attention on the most important information, and make information easier to process and remember.


And they make a fabulous recommendation on how to help consumers “avoid too much” of ingredients that are known to pose a health risk:

The FDA can better communicate product healthfulness by grouping nutrients into mutually-exclusive evaluative categories and using color to highlight healthful ingredients or particularly high or low nutrient levels.

The comment is worth reading in its entirety (see comment  from Behavioral_Science and Regulation Group here).

It was not surprising to find that the comment period was probably extended in response to the numerous requests from industries that anticipate adverse affects from the ruling: Juice Product Association, Specialty Food Association, American Beverage Association, Council for Responsible Nutrition, Snack Food Association, and Grocery Manufacturers Association to name a few. Though there was one notable exception in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Many of these industry representatives jumped in to voice their concern. It seems the cranberry industry is particularly concerned about requirements to label added sugars. There were several representatives from various companies including Gary Dempze of Gaynor Cranberry Co., Inc. who says, “unlike other fruit, cranberries have little natural sugar and, therefore, have a uniquely tart taste. Cranberry products need to be sweetened so consumers can enjoy their health benefits.”

Other supportive comments come from Weight Watchers, the American Diabetes Association, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, and the American Dental Association to name a few of the big ones.

All-in-all it is fun to read through comments and see where different institutions fall on the issue. Give it a whirl.



Does the FDA really think 12 ounces is the same as 20?

The FDA recently released a proposal that would update packaged food labels to “reflect the latest scientific information.” They are taking public comments here and here until June 2nd, 2014. Some of the more salient changes include

New FDA Food Label What is Different

  • disclosing “added sugars” in addition to natural sugars;
  • adding a column to include both “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrition information;
  • and highlighting “calories”, “serving size” and “percent of daily value” through changes to the size, style, and position of font.  

Many of the new rules improve clarity and relevance of the labels, which will provide consumers with more accurate information. But will we make better choices?  Access to open and accurate information does not necessarily lead to healthier behavior, in fact, it could result in exactly the opposite.

In particular, there is one component of the new rules that could result in poorer eating behavior: the FDA is increasing serving size for larger containers in order to “better align with how much people really eat.” 

There is a large body of literature that shows the size of food containers influences the amount of consumption. In other words, the larger your bowl of popcorn, the more popcorn you will eat (and doesn’t matter if the popcorn is really bad). Part of the new FDA rules will reflect this research by increasing serving size to take changes in the amount of food consumed as a result of different package sizes into account. In effect, larger packaging will have larger serving sizes such that a 12 oz bottle of soda and a 20 oz bottle of soda are both a single serving. This update is an attempt to align with legislation that requires serving size to reflect the amount people actually eat. The current serving sizes are based on surveys conducted in the 1970’s and 80’s. Since then food packaging sizes have increased dramatically, and consumption along with it. Thus, the FDA is increasing the serving size to reflect changes in how much people are eating today. This is a misuse of the research. Think of it this way, if a recent survey showed people are driving faster today than they were thirty years ago, and there is clear evidence that people are driving faster today because their cars have more horsepower, should the government then increase the speed limit for cars with more horsepower? It doesn’t make any sense. While people eat more as a result of larger food containers it does not mean that they were unsatisfied when they ate less from a smaller container nor that it is safer to eat more. Further, just because we eat more from a larger container does not mean we actually want to eat more if someone asked us. Perhaps the law should reflect what is safe, and how much the average person eats (and wants to eat) after controlling for external factors (often manipulated by industry) that influence when our body tells us we’re satisfied.

FDA Serving Size Infographic

The FDA has proposed a dual label which displays caloric and nutritional information per serving and per container. Saving the public the burden of arithmetic.

The FDA has proposed a dual label which displays caloric and nutritional information per serving and per container, saving the public the burden of arithmetic.

Another justification for changing serving size goes something like this: “When the serving size is less than the package size, consumers have to do mental math to figure out how many calories are in the package.” This is bad because math is evil. Who wants to do arithmetic? But in all seriousness this is a legitimate concern. Math takes up valuable time and mental energy, and frankly most people won’t bother. The problem is, this point is no longer relevant as the FDA is also introducing a “dual column” feature that shows caloric information “per serving” and “per container” so we don’t have to remember to “carry the one” when counting calories. 

Another concern of mine is how industry and consumers will react to these changes in serving size labeling. Industry might wonder, “why offer a 12 oz soda when a 20 oz soda is also one serving and we can charge more?” The consumer might think, “why buy the 12 oz soda when the 20 oz doesn’t cost that much more and is also just one serving?” The new serving size label also allows for easy rationalizations of poor eating habits, “I shouldn’t drink this whole soda, but it’s ok because it’s just one serving.”

There is much yet to be discovered as to how the new presentation of information on food labels will actually affect behavior. But it is important to remember that information by itself doesn’t always lead to behavior change and, if it does, the resulting behaviors could be detrimental to our health. I believe there will be negative consequences that come from labeling serving size by container size. If you agree, tell the FDA to remove this part of the new rules because 12 ounces is NOT the same as 20. Also I encourage you to explore all changes for yourself. I believe many of the new rules are at least a step in the right direction.