Two Nutrition Facts Labels on a Gradient Background

A Tale of Two Labels

Dana Johnson Downing
June 21, 2017

On-Demand Webinar: “Labeling Changes 2020”

Watch the Recording

On-Demand Webinar: “Labeling Changes 2020”

Elizabeth Salvo from ESHA Research joined TraceGains for a conversation about the labeling change that went into effect in 2020. Watch the recording to learn best practices and see case studies.

Watch the Recording

On May 20, 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized a rule to modernize the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. The FDA set compliance dates of July 26, 2017, for large companies to meet the new requirements, and an extra year for smaller companies to comply. Then-First Lady Michelle Obama lauded the announcement to help families make healthier choices and reduce their risk of heart disease and obesity.

However, as of June 13, 2017, the modernized Nutrition Facts label faced an uncertain future. Under the Trump administration’s leadership, the FDA announced an indefinite delay in the implementation of the nutritional label changes.

Regulators proposed the new label to help consumers find calorie, serving size, and nutrient information more quickly to empower more informed dietary choices. Some were unhappy with the updated food labels. Food industry lobbying groups warned producers would pass on the cost of these label changes to consumers resulting in higher grocery bills for all Americans. Industry estimates are as high as $6,000 per SKU (stock keeping unit) for companies to make the necessary changes. To bring all food labels in compliance with the new label format could be as high as $1 billion, and that’s just the beginning. There are several other labeling rules in the works at FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including labeling rules for menu, fiber, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). With so many label changes on the horizon, the price tag for new labels could reach several billion dollars.

Considering all the proposed and pending label changes announced in 2016, industry groups urged the Obama administration to harmonize the implementation dates. The industry could comply with all of the new label changes rather than make back-to-back-to-back changes. When the new administration took over in January 2017, the food industry was eager to learn if they’d find a more sympathetic ear at the FDA with Trump appointees at the helm. They got their first glimpse of a pro-industry stance in May when the FDA announced it would postpone menu labeling and reopen the comment period. That announcement became the blueprint for the FDA’s decision on June 13, 2017, to indefinitely delay the Nutrition Facts label updates.

Where does this leave the industry and consumers? 

Many food companies moved swiftly and spent millions to meet the new standards. The new rule forced food companies to make numerous new calculations and create revised labels for every product they sell, and sometimes that meant altering the product packaging as well. The ripple effect of these changes moved along the supply chain to ingredient suppliers because their customers (food manufacturers) started demanding new nutritional data that wasn’t required before.

Some companies are frustrated the FDA waited this long to announce the delay and feel as though they’re paying an “early adopter’s penalty” for being prepared to meet the July 26, 2017, deadline. Other companies have made strategic decisions to voluntarily stay on course with their new label designs because they believe providing more information is the right business decision and will win them trust with consumers. Other companies are relieved the deadline is on hold because they were holding off making changes until the FDA issued final guidance on the new rules.

Thus, it appears consumers will see both the new and old nutritional label formats for a while. Let’s look at the two formats.

According to the FDA’s website, critical updates include:

  • An updated design highlights “calories” and “servings,” two essential elements in making informed food choices.

  • Requirements for serving sizes that more closely reflect the amount of food people eat. What and how much people eat and drink has changed since regulators published the last serving size requirements in 1993. By law, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act requires that serving sizes be based on what people eat.

  • Declaration of grams and a percent daily value (%DV) for “added sugars” to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product. It’s challenging to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10% of your total daily calories from added sugars, and this is consistent with the scientific evidence supporting the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

  • “Dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrition information for certain multi-serving food products that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings. Examples include a pint of ice cream and a three-ounce bag of chips. With dual-column labels available, people will be able to easily understand how many calories and nutrients they’re getting if they eat or drink the entire package/unit at one time.

  • For packages that are between one and two servings, such as a 20-ounce soda, the calories, and other nutrients will be required to be labeled as one serving because people typically consume it in one sitting.

  • Updated daily values for nutrients like sodium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D, consistent with the Institute of Medicine recommendations and the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Daily values are reference amounts of nutrients to consume or not to exceed and are used to calculate the %DV that manufacturers include on the label.

  • Declaration of Vitamin D and potassium that will include the actual gram amount, in addition to the %DV. These are nutrients some people aren’t getting enough of, which puts them at higher risk for chronic disease. The %DV for calcium and iron will continue to be required, along with the actual gram amount. Vitamins A and C will no longer be required because deficiencies of these vitamins are rare, but companies can include these nutrients voluntarily.

  • “Calories from Fat” will be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount. “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” will continue to be required.

  • An abbreviated footnote to better explain the %DV.

The process of making label updates is too complicated and costly. Even without the complexity of broader policy issues, it can be a very manual and error-prone task to update a food label to reflect a slight change in a food manufacturer’s recipe or specifications. Even a change as simple as sourcing an ingredient from a new supplier could impact what needs to go on a label.

TraceGains can’t solve the political debate over labeling changes, but we are working to improve the process. Our software helps revolutionize information exchange across the food supply chain by collecting and digitizing documents and data necessary to track food safety compliance, quality management, and supplier verification. We’ve teamed up with ESHA Research Inc. – the makers of Genesis R&D food labeling software – to integrate our systems to simplify the process of creating food labels and specifications by reducing error-prone manual tasks and time wasted entering data into multiple systems. The TraceGains-Genesis integration creates a more accurate labeling process while reducing costs for large and small manufacturers.

Elizabeth Salvo from ESHA Research joined TraceGains to discuss the latest labeling changes. Elizabeth is the director of Regulatory and Consulting Services at ESHA Research, the preeminent nutrition software provider for almost four decades. Watch the on-demand webinar recording here.