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Proposed Food Label Change Could Make Us Fatter and Sicker

There’s a new push to finalize the Food and Drug Administration’s new guidelines for nutritional panels. The changes, which include listing “added sugars” and updating serving sizes to reflect what people actually eat, are intended to make it easier for people to know what they’re eating and make better choices. However, newly published research suggests that the updated labeling guidelines could end up backfiring, causing people to eat more than they normally would.

Last week, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) sent a letter to FDA Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff praising the label changes—specifically the addition of added sugars—and urged the FDA to swiftly finalize the rule in order to address health problems such as obesity and diabetes. However, a study published last month in the journal Appetite demonstrates that the changes the new rules make to serving sizes could prompt people to eat more, ultimately making problems like obesity and diabetes worse.

In an opinion piece published in last week’s Washington Post, the authors of the study—researchers from New York University and Duke University—wrote:

In our study, we asked consumers what the serving size information on the Nutrition Facts label refers to. Less than 20 percent of people correctly thought the serving size refers to the amount of the product typically consumed in one sitting, while about 80 percent thought it recommended how much of that food they should eat.

In their study, the researchers asked people waiting in line for a college basketball game to taste-test cookies. They were allowed to eat as many as they wanted after reading a sheet that had nutritional information on it. Half of the subjects received nutritional information as it would appear on a label today, the other half received information as it will be presented under the FDA’s new guidelines. The half that saw the information presented in the updated label, with increased serving size, ate 41 percent more cookies.

While these researchers didn’t look at how putting added sugars on the label might affect behavior, there’s good reason to think that this too might backfire. Three studies conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that by simply putting low-fat labels on snack foods, people were encouraged to eat up to 50 percent more than those who saw labels without the low-fat claim. That’s 84 percent more calories. Why? The theory is that the words that make a food sound healthier, like “low-fat” and “fat-free,” change a person’s perception about how much of that food is healthy for them to eat. It was likely true, at one point, of foods labeled “trans-fat free” and very well may be the same for foods labeled with “no added sugars.” Instead of looking at their total sugar consumption, a person may see no or low added sugars as a pass to consume more of the product, resulting in a higher level of total sugar and calorie consumption.

The researchers advise the FDA to correct the problem by adding a definition of serving size or adding a statement that “serving size is not a recommendation; it may be healthier to consume less than the serving size in one sitting.” That may help, but it doesn’t address the other problems in the new labeling proposal. My advice would be to get the FDA out of the business of telling Americans how to eat. They have a pretty bad track record and usually seem to make matters worse.