The Nutrition Facts Label is receiving a full makeover. At a glance, the changes might not seem like much, but with a bold style, some must-have accessories and a mindset of “out with the old and in with the new,” the panel is making waves in the industry.
“I think what isn’t always clear to folks is that there’s really a change on every line of the Nutrition Facts panel,” said Melissa Grzybowski, U.S. regulatory and nutrition specialist, Food Consulting Co. “It hasn’t been updated since 1990, so it was long overdue.”
Within the list of changes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires an increase in the type size for “Calories” as well as other design variations. A new footnote better explains Daily Value to consumers, and the updated panel excludes “Calories from Fat.” That’s because the type of fat is more important than the amount, according to F.D.A. research. In addition, the list now includes added sugars, vitamin D and potassium, the last two being nutrients that many consumers don’t get enough of in their diets. Some of these nutrients’ definitions also have been altered, along with serving and packaging sizes.
“Many in the food industry want to provide consumers with the foods they seek — more nutritious offerings and clearer labeling for greater transparency,” said Scott Gottlieb, M.D., commissioner of the F.D.A., at a public meeting on July 26. “We’ve also heard requests from many in the food industry to modernize claims, ingredient information and standards of identity.”
To allow companies more time to complete this list, in May, the F.D.A. extended the act’s compliance dates from July 26 to Jan. 1, 2020, for big companies with more than $10 million in annual food sales and Jan. 1, 2021, for small companies. But even with this extension, bakers and snack producers still view the Nutrition Facts Label as an unfinished makeover with very little time before the big reveal.
Lee Sanders, senior vice-president of government relations and public affairs and corporate secretary, American Bakers Association, recalled the process during the original regulation, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, from over two decades ago.
“When that original package was rolled out, we had all the information, all the answers for elements that bakers needed to move forward to develop the first-ever food nutrition label,” she said. “The difference this time is we still don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, so that has been frustrating.”
Although label alterations are a process, the missing pieces for baking and snack companies — guidance on fiber, added sugar and small format packaging — make it a challenge to begin the development of a complete label for packages.
The biggest concern with the Nutrition Facts Label is that the longer the F.D.A. waits to provide additional guidance, the shorter time manufacturers will have to get updated information from their suppliers for compliance.
“If you’re a manufacturer and you’re creating nutrition information, you really need all your suppliers to give you potassium and vitamin D and added sugar amounts of those ingredients so that you can incorporate them into your finished Nutrition Facts Panel,” Ms. Grzybowski said. “There’s definitely a trickle-down effect, and it takes more time than you might think.”
Despite unanswered questions on some nutrients, bakers and snack producers should be collecting values for dietary fiber and added sugar now if they haven’t started already. They should also keep records of the testing. The F.D.A. does not require the submission of this information, but it does want companies to have them on file in case of a regulatory review.
Although appreciative of the additional time for compliance, Ms. Sanders said the current delay could result in a collision of manufacturer needs just before compliance.
“What we found that was so interesting as we surveyed our members throughout this process is that there are about the same number of packaging companies that there were when the NLEA came out, but there’s been an explosion of product,” she said. “There’s going to be a bottleneck with everyone rushing to that finish line.”
The informational delay also could cause issues in switching out existing stock to meet deadline, so planning for the known and unknown is crucial.
“For our products, we have a very long shelf life, which could have old-style packaging on the shelf for up to a year,” said Dominic Irace, quality and regulatory director, Ideal Snacks Corp. “With the deadline of January 2020, our team must be making those decisions soon to ensure we have new film in use by January 2019.”
Every F.D.A. regulation implementation is a process — especially when the bottom line is informing consumers about their food — and going almost 30 years without a full touchup makes the Nutrition Facts Panel an even bigger project. And as with any makeover, its smooth success is all about cooperation, preparation and timing.