Nutrition Facts Labels Can Be Misleading

With the American obesity epidemic plaguing large swaths of the country, it’s no surprise that both the private and the public sector are scrambling to come up with long-term solutions to this problem. The number of fad diets on the market has skyrocketed in recent years, and the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 mandated that restaurants and retail establishments display the relevant calorie counts of all of their products.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been largely in vain. Since the passing of the ADA, adult obesity rates rose from 34.9% to almost 40% of the nation. These trends provide a strong counterargument against the belief that a lack of education was a primary driver in obesity -- nutrition information is clearly available for packaged foods and is now displayed in most restaurants. It turns out that access to information may not be the problem -- it could be the information itself.

The calorie content seen on food products, often displayed as a total percentage, is based off of numbers agreed upon by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Collectively, these are known as Daily Values (DVs), and they exist for several of the major food components.This includes fat, total carbohydrates, and protein — three of the most well-known and vilified components of the nutrient facts labels.. The current labeling system is based on a 2,000-calorie diet, with the stipulation that no more than 30% of daily calories come from fat, no more than 60% for carbohydrates, and no more than 10% of calories from protein.

This seems relatively straightforward, but consumers should avoid taking the recommendations on these labels as gospel. The above guidelines apply to all adults and children over the age of four -- an incredibly broad category with notable differences in calorie and nutrient requirements.  While the FDA’s attempts to minimize confusion and maximize transparency with proper nutrition guidelines can be appreciated, it is easy to see how the Nutrition Facts guidelines are often misleading.

For example, many adult women need less than 2,000 calories each day to maintain their current body composition. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), most women who are not moderately active need between 1600 and 1800 calories each day. This number would likely be even lower for those who are trying to lose weight, since the addition of exercise alone is typically not sufficient to create the necessary caloric deficit.

Furthermore, studies have shown that a diet composed of 20-25% fat, rather than the FDA-recommended 30%, has led to a two-fold increase in weight loss. Another study achieved similar results regarding protein intake. Those who obtained  approximately 30% of their calories from protein lost more weight and a higher percentage of body fat than those who garnered only 16% of their calories from protein, which is still above the FDA-recommended dose.

Simply put, a large portion of the population may be basing their dietary decisions on faulty Nutrition Facts labels. This is no doubt a difficult task, but the FDA, in conjunction with other federal agencies, has a large role to play in combating the growing obesity epidemic. To that end, the FDA should seriously consider altering the national Nutrition Facts standards to account for significant differences between gender and age brackets. The American obesity crisis is growing by the second -- the FDA’s time to act is now.

A modified version of this article appears on www.nutripol.org.