A new study suggests that the FDA's new nutrition labels could totally backfire

After 20 years of skyrocketing rates obesity, heart disease, and stroke In the US — partially due to an unhealthy diet — the U.S. Fsood and Drug Administration has proposed a big update to their ‘nutrition facts’ label.

These rectangular boxes adorn many packaged foods — everything from potato chips to cereal boxes.

But a new study suggests that these changes could make people eat more, not less.

The new label intends to deliver more accurate and necessary dietary information by reflecting what people are realistically eating versus what people should be eating, according to The Washington Post.

A changing label

You can see the proposed changes to the label below. A larger, bolded font draws your eye to the number of calories per serving — one of the most important factors in losing weight.

A new “added sugars” row and “% daily value” number for sugars will help consumers understand how much sugar is in their diets (the World Health Organisation recommends no more than 6 tablespoons — about 75 grams — per day, a goal many of us find almost impossible to reach).

The label also drops some unnecessary information, such as “calories from fat,” since the type of fat is more important than the amount of fat.

Here’s what the new label (right) will look like:

The issue with the new label stems from its more realistic (read: larger) serving sizes, which may actually trick people into thinking that the FDA endorses larger portions.

Problematic interpretations

A new study, published in the journal Appetite, measured how consumers interpret the new labels, and how those interpretations affect the amount of food that they would serve themselves.

“We found that people misinterpret serving size information, with the vast majority of consumers incorrectly believing that the serving size refers to how much can/should be consumed,” the researchers write in the paper.

In one test condition, the researchers showed participants the nutrition label of a family-sized package of lasagna and asked them how many they’d buy to feed 20 people.

Half of the participants looked at a package with an old label saying that it contains 6 servings, and the other half saw package with a version of the new label saying that it contained 3 servings.

While the size and nutritional contents of both packages of lasagna were the same, participants felt the need to buy about two more lasagnas (a total of about 7 for 20 people) with the new label than those with the traditional label. In essence, the new label was “tricking” people into buying more.

Overwhelmingly, people are confused about what the phrase “serving size” actually means. Studies like this one suggest that people perceive the serving size to be a recommended amount of food to eat, rather than the amount that most people will realistically eat.

The logical conclusion, then, is that if the serving size on a nutrition label is larger, consumers will end up buying and eating more food.

Is there a fix?

In the wake of the FDA’s original proposal to overhaul the nutrition label in March, 2014, the reaction from the scientific community has been swift. Researchers at Harvard wrote a letter to the FDA, citing concern that the new labels won’t accurately reflect how healthy a product is, and will implicitly endorse larger serving sizes.

Their suggested fix is to remove the word “serving” altogether, and replace it with another word that doesn’t “suggest the context of a meal, like ‘unit’ or ‘quantity.'” Alternatively, they said, you could add a footnote to the end of the label that clearly states that the serving size is not a recommendation, but they fear that this may lead to information overload.

However you slice it, communicating how healthy a certain product is fraught with logistical challenges. Perhaps the best way to sidestep this issue altogether is to forego processed foods completely and eat simple fruits, grains, and vegetables. No label-reading necessary.

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