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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Nutrition label change could pose health and sales challenge

Industry experts say a proposed adjustment to the way FDA calculates percent daily values could cause consumer confusion at best and malnutrition at worst.  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is contemplating a change to the way it calculates the percent daily value (DV) on food and supplement labels, and natural products industry experts say that the modification could cause consumer confusion at best and malnutrition at worst.  

In 2007, the FDA issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking titled “Food Labeling: Revision of Reference Values and Mandatory Nutrients.” In that document, the FDA requested feedback on ways to revise the DVs that appear on Nutrition Facts and Supplement Facts panels. DVs indicate the percentage of a nutrient in a serving of food based on recommended daily intakes for a 2,000-calorie diet.

“The way [DVs] have been computed has not changed for a number of years,” says Steve Mister, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Council for Responsible Nutrition. “In fact, the data on which some of those DVs are based goes back to the late 1960s.”

The FDA is currently reviewing comments on the advance notice, according to Stephen King, FDA spokesman. "If FDA were to decide to revise the [DVs], then FDA would issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and solicit comments again on proposed changes and then issue a Final Rule at a later date," King says. Mister predicts that after four years of consideration, the FDA could finally release a proposed rule on this issue before the end of the year.

On one hand, Mister applauds the move, saying that DVs are in desperate need of an update. For example, the Institute of Medicine recently upped its recommended intakes for vitamin D. Yet DVs on product labels don’t yet reflect the newly recommended levels.

On the other hand, the FDA isn’t intending only to fix outdated DV percentages so that they're based on recent science. The agency also is mulling over a revision to the methodology by which it computes DVs. Currently, DVs are calculated using the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)—the number at which 95 percent of the population hits sufficiency for a nutrient. Instead, the FDA might use the estimated average requirement (EAR)—the level at which half the population hits sufficiency for a nutrient. As a result of this change, DVs would go up. For example, a product that now indicates it contains 100% DV of vitamin C might soon say 150% DV—and nothing other than the label will have changed in the food or supplement.

“It makes less nutritious food look more nutritious,” Mister says. “And it makes supplements look like they’re super potent, which might actually deter people from taking them if [products] are at 200 percent and 300 percent daily value.”

Will new nutrition labels help or hurt consumers?

Since the Nutrition Facts panel appeared on food products in 1994, consumer interest in nutrition numbers has dropped from 64 percent in 1995 to about 50 percent in 2010, according to Kimberly Lord Stewart, health and wellness editor and analyst, and author of Eating Between the Lines (St. Martins Press, 2007). “Natural products customers most likely fall in this latter half, as they are keenly aware of what they eat,” Stewart says.

In fact, customers at Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass., respond to DVs in a “big way,” says Michael Kanter, store owner. If the DV percentages rise simply because of a change to the calculation method—and not due to product reformulation—consumers will think they’re getting higher amounts of nutrients from the same old foods. The result? They’ll likely question whether they need to supplement with additional nutrients, according to Kanter.

“That’s not all bad,” says Kanter, who prefers that people get their nourishment from food rather than supplements. Realistically, however, people don’t get adequate nutrition from just food, Kanter admits.

Research backs this up. A 2011 study in The Journal of Nutrition showed that 70 percent of the population didn’t meet the EAR—that is, the midpoint for sufficiency—for vitamin D, and 60 percent didn’t meet the EAR for vitamin E. Also, large percentages of the population didn’t reach the EAR for calcium (38 percent) and magnesium (45 percent).

Considering that two out of three Americans are either overweight or obese, most of us seem to be overfed but undernourished. “Overweight Americans are not unhealthy because they get too much vitamin C or E,” says Stewart. “They are unhealthy because they get too many macro-nutrients like calories and carbohydrates.”

If the FDA uses EARs instead of RDAs to compute DVs, the bad situation could worsen. “People will think they’re getting enough when they’re not,” Kanter says. “It will be a health challenge and a sales challenge.”

Mister explains that consumers intuitively interpret DVs as applying to them personally, not as a midpoint of the population. For example, if the DV is 100 percent for calcium, consumers think they’re meeting 100 percent of their need for the nutrient. Under the current methodology for DV calculation, then, some people end up getting a bit extra of certain nutrients. But these nutrients have high margins of safety even at upper levels seen in adverse event reports, according to Mister. “There’s no question about the safety of these if people get a little more than they need,” Mister says.

If the DV calculation shifts, however, people may not get enough of essential nutrients.

“We believe that DV should be based on the RDA, which if hit, the vast majority of population gets what they need,” Mister says. “If we move to EAR, people will think that’s all they need, and it really isn’t. Half the population wouldn’t be covered.”

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