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Kimberly Egan

FDA Compliance

Simple Nutrition Facts for Complicated People

Food for thought for winners of the fattest nation contest

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 11:16

Nutrition labels have been much in the news lately, presumably because we have once again won the fattest nation contest. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and various nutrition researchers have all put out some thought-provoking information for us to ponder.

The problems

First, people don’t understand nutrition labels. The FDA learned this by conducting extensive and expensive Internet-based research that showed that if you ask people to compare products made by different manufacturers to determine which is “healthier” (whatever that means), they will not get it right. In other words, they will get it wrong. I learned the same thing, much less expensively, by talking to the more strident members of my family at the dinner table.

Also, pretty much no one reads nutrition labeling on menus. Among the reasons cited are “confusion” and the “priority of... hunger.” Good luck fighting that one. Hunger has been a priority since we descended from the trees or crawled out of the primordial soup or whatever your view of creation might be.

My insightful observations

People who read food labels are slimmer than those who don’t. So if we could get people to read and understand nutrition labels, we might not be the Fattest Nation anymore.

Women read nutrition labels and men don’t. These results are possibly confounded by the fact that men don’t do much grocery shopping and if they do, they may be executing specific instructions from the woman of the house as they amble the aisles glued to their cell phones: “No, honey, the blue one with the red lettering, not the yellow lettering.”

If you allow food companies to decide what constitutes a serving size, you will end up with a label that says that one pickle can feed a family of four for three months.

Mexican-American and other Hispanic men read food labels more than other groups of men (e.g., WASPs). I assume this is because WASP men leave food procurement to the housekeeper or, if times are tough, to the wife. Recall George H. W. Bush’s astonishment at how much milk cost.

My humble solutions

Get real about serving sizes. I know Kraft Foods says one box of macaroni and cheese serves four, but everyone knows it serves one person. Ask any college student. A box of macaroni and cheese can serve four only if the four are supermodels trying to go from 120 lb to 112 lb for New York Fashion Week.

Provide dietary information that is useful for consumers, not information that is helpful to manufacturers. For example, the FDA is considering adding an “added sugar” component to labels. The idea, I guess, is to help people get a grip on how processed a product may be, which is curious because most products that require a nutrition label are processed to begin with. Hostess Twinkies (may they rest in peace) did not grow on Twinkie trees, so one could safely assume that everything in a Twinkie was “added.”

It would be more helpful to specify the kind of sugar in a product (e.g., glucose, fructose, sucrose) because some people actually need glucose while pretty much no one actually needs fructose unless it comes in the form of real fruit, and real fruit does not carry nutrition labels. The Corn Refiner’s Association will no doubt disagree with me.

Revive home economics in public schools so that children learn what the information on nutrition labels means in the first place.

Call Mayor Bloomberg. He seems to be getting this all pretty much right, in part because he is making food companies remove ingredients that are “harmful when used as directed.”

Trans fats are gone, and salt content is down 25 percent. All without the consumer noticing.

This article first appeared on the AssurX blog and is used by permission.


About The Author

Kimberly Egan’s picture

Kimberly Egan

Kimberly Egan is a litigation and regulatory lawyer with a background in pharmaceutical and medical device litigation and advice, Consumer Product Safety Commission work, food safety counseling and litigation, and commercial and mass tort litigation. Her food work has included risk-management planning and strategic assessments related to obesity claims, litigation analyses in connection with an acquisition of a company manufacturing dietary supplements, advice on FDA’s food additive and food contact regulations, advice on FDA’s Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) regulations, and general advice on food safety issues, product recalls, and supply-chain rationalization. She is a regular contributor to the AssurX blog.



"and men don't" is too exclusive!!!  Perhaps, "many men don't", or "most men don't" --- I read labels with or without my wife. We have a long list of no-nos that we will not buy -- and one of them is American made choclates -- we have yet to find any without trans-fatty acids.

Thanks for your interesting article.

Real Food Doesn't Need Nutrition Labels

Dear Ms Egan,

Are we giving up on trying to get people to back to food? And, no, almost nothing in the center aisles of a grocery chain store counts as food. In my opinion, we've given up enough control to the "food" industry already.

With actual food we may not have to be so concerned with portion control or nutrition labels. I think nature has programmed us, our bodies, with robust control mechanisms that way.

I read Michael Pollan's "In Defence of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" a while ago. And, one advice is forever etched in my brain: Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Perhaps we should work not on making nutrition labels better, but getting rid of the need for them altogether?

Best regards, Shrikant Kalegaonkar (twitter: @shrikale, LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/shrikale/)