Both Canada and the U.S. are in the midst of revising how nutrition information will be presented on a food label. The U.S. is a few years ahead of Canada, with proposed regulations drafted in 2014, updated in 2015 and likely to be finalized in the early half of 2016. If that happens, the revised U.S. nutrition facts panel would become mandatory in 2018. In Canada, proposed regulations were published in Canada Gazette I in June. Having final regulations out in 2016 would be possible, but would also be a very aggressive timetable. Whether it takes one and a half to two years to create final regulations is rather meaningless, as there is a five-year transition period proposed, starting from when actual regulations are registered. The timing in both cases is speculated, and not cast in stone.
The effort to modernize both Canadian and U.S. nutrition labelling is a large undertaking. It’s like introducing a new model car. It’s not just the facade that has changed, but the power train as well. This includes revised reference amounts, daily values and serving sizes. There is also an expectation that consumers will be able to understand all this information in a meaningful way. It is in that connection where the health benefits of all those efforts would pay off. When Henry Ford created the Edsel, he poured so much attention into its brilliant design, he neglected fostering its connection with consumers. That story of course is now history. How will these new nutrition facts tables connect with consumers? The U.S. has had mandatory nutrition labelling for about two decades, and Canada for about one. Have these efforts been a success? Perhaps not so much, if they now need significant revision.
There has been some very interesting research done recently on consumer’s relationship to food labelling, and in particular to the new U.S. serving size rules. It is important to understand that serving sizes by law in the U.S. must be based on what Americans actually consume, not what the government suggests one should eat. Over the past 20 years the portions of certain foods have increased, a factor that research also links to obesity. For example, the current U.S. reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) for ice cream and related products is half a U.S. cup. The new proposed RACC is one U.S. cup, (240 mL). The general direction of food consumption then is more, not less.
A recent article in the journal Appetite suggests consumers do not all understand what Nutritional Facts Table (NFT) serving sizes are. They evaluated the new proposed NFT format in contrast to the current format, and found that the new format is actually promoting even larger serving sizes. If the research is correct, it would mean the new format will increase obesity rates, as the total calorie consumption would increase, despite the emphasis of calories in the NFT. Is the new NFT the Edsel of food labelling?
The story in Canada is different, but it does parallel that of the U.S. Reference amounts (RA) in Canada are also established for many foods. Currently manufacturers, other than in the case of single-serving foods, are not obliged to base serving sizes on a relationship to the RA. A serving size has to, however, be reasonable. The proposed changes in Canada would see serving sizes also based on an applicable RA, which is also based on what Canadians typically eat. Would the U.S. research then also relate to Canadians in the same way? That answer is a probable yes.
It would be rather simplistic to think we might be better off without nutrition information. It is, however, demonstrated in other research that such information plays a key role in influencing consumer’s relationship to the foods they purchase and consume. Ironically, the research on serving sizes also demonstrates this, except that the outcomes are not what we want. Would it be better then to have serving sizes that are suggested, and not actual? Likely not, as a true peak at the nutrition consumers eat would not be revealed. Would it be better to also include a suggested serving size? Perhaps.
As an optimist, there is actually hope here. Further research on the matter seems to suggest that nutrition knowledge in advance of reviewing a NFT permits consumers to make the best and most use of the panel. What’s not so clear is how to help those who make poor choices. The focal point does, however, appear to be “knowledge.” A great design that is not marketed properly ends up becoming a poor product. There is a lot of bad nutrition advice out there that no doubt causes even more confusion among consumers. A new NFT on its own will not achieve the changes to better dietary practices; governments need to make sure consumers connect the NFT with their message.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at [email protected]