The Nutrition Facts panel makeover, the FDA's first revision to the 1990 Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in more than 20 years, has put pressure on many product developers to recalculate servings and labeling requirements for their products. They will have to modify serving and maybe even package sizes, add a separate listing for "added sugars" and revise the overall graphic format to comply with the updated regulations, which reflect the evolving scientific evidence related to dietary factors and the risk of chronic diseases.
The update, mandated by the Obama administration, will also highlight micronutrients Americans need more of (vitamin D and potassium, possibly choline), while some old favorites will be replaced (vitamins A and C). Many serving sizes will increase and calorie counts will be more prominent in larger, bolder type. Fiber is subject to the FDA's new definition of dietary fiber as naturally occurring. Pre-approval will be required for some fibers previously included in the dietary fiber calculation.
A delay of the ruling to 2020 (for most food companies) was a welcome relief for some manufacturers, knowing they have extra time to get their products ready. But since February 2016, when most of the rules governing the new label were published, Label Insight (www.labelinsight.com) reported a 300 percent growth in products labeled with the new format each quarter. The group says more than 8,000 products circulating this summer featured the updated label format. Working with brands and the FDA to increase consumer transparency, Label Insight estimated some 15,000 items would be in stores with the new Nutrition Facts panel by the end of 2017.
Major brands, including Hershey, Bimbo, Campbell Soup and Mondelez, are among the food companies already using the new label on at least some of their products. Gearing up their supply chains early in efforts to smooth the transition, these manufacturers prepared to meet the original July 2018 deadline, when the new labels were first set to appear.
Though small in volume compared with what a General Mills-sized company has to contend with, all products from Nourish Snacks (www.nourishsnacks.com) − granola morsels of whole-grain oats, chia, chocolate, apples, blueberries, bananas and other fruits − already bear the updated Nutrition Facts Panel.
"During the summer of 2016, we renovated our brand with a new identity and a complete package redesign," says Joy Bauer, founder and chief nutrition officer, also a nutrition author and the health and nutrition expert on The Today Show. "This renovation project was the perfect opportunity to pre-emptively update the Nutrition Facts panel in that same spirit of transparency."
In order to recalculate added sugars, dietary fibers and vitamin statements, Bauer says Nourish Snacks enlisted "top-notch" product development and labeling software. "This helped easily formulate and organize all of our nutrition information into the new format and didn't take very long," she says. "We simply adjusted our label to reflect the new FDA format, then we incorporated the adjustments into our package [re]design. Our product formulations stayed the same, and we didn't have any conversion costs."
Nature's Path (us.naturespath.com) began implementing a "flow-through" label rollout approach, updating its nutrition tables one product category at a time, and already has its granola, cereal and bars in stores featuring updated Nutrition Facts panels.
The company was revising its products' nutritional information when the FDA set the original deadline. The old packaging will be phased out as products are sold and store shelves are restocked. "It made sense to combine the rebrand with the nutritional changes to eliminate additional design work and packaging waste," explains Arjan Stephens, executive vice president of the family-owned cereals, snack bar and breakfast products company. "We expect all of our packaging to have updated nutritional information by the end of 2018."
Although Nature's Path didn't need to change or reformulate its products, it adjusted servings -- all 30g cereal servings had to be increased to 40g servings, and all 55g servings were adjusted to 60g. "For our toaster pastry category, the serving size changed to two tarts (previously one)," Stephens adds. "We are now required to list the Nutrition Facts for the entire carton (six pastries) in a dual-column [label] format on-pack. For our waffles category, we were also required to add Nutrition Facts for the entire carton in a dual-column format. The costs associated with the revisions were just as we expected, as we were able to complete most of the work in-house."
Popchips (popchips.com), which produces popped potato and corn snacks, has revamped about 90 percent of its product labels so far, with the help of its in-house teams across technical, regulatory, design and marketing departments. It did so because its products have a one-year shelf life, so depleting old labels and designing new ones while meeting the original compliance date meant it had to start planning about 18-24 months in advance, explains Marc Seguin, chief marketing officer.
"Our higher volume products have more frequent opportunities for implementing label artwork changes, so transitioning those was easy and faster," he explains. "But lower-volume items usually need more lead-time for a change. We were working toward the original compliance date of July 26, 2018, so our most popular, high-volume products were updated first. The proposed FDA extension to 2020 will allow us to further deplete label inventory for items we make less frequently."
During the label revision, Popchips began grouping products in batches to better utilize its resources as a small company. "Products in the first batch might be on-shelf with new labels months before products in the last batch," Seguin notes. "We are engaged with our snackers on social media, and are continuously communicating updates."
Serving sizes didn’t change, Seguin says, but each of the bag sizes had to be assessed to see if consumers could reasonably eat the contents in one sitting, per the new regulations. "The bags now require a dual-column Nutrition Facts Label – one for a single serving and one for the whole bag," he points out. "We updated our nutrition software used to calculate each nutrient, then verified the value with lab analysis. For nutrients that weren’t previously displayed on the nutrition panel, such as vitamin D, we had to reach out to our suppliers to get nutrient values for our raw materials, which were then used to calculate values for our finished product."
Nothing had to be reformulated. And Seguin estimates costs to be lower than originally expected because the company is depleting more of its existing label inventory before switching over to the updated labels. One drawback came several months after the FDA released the new standards, he says: "It issued new rounding rules, so we had to redo some of our early work."
Adding the nutrition software update and recalculating its nutritional data took four to six weeks, he estimates. "Our internal label approval process and ordering timeline was longer, more like nine-18 months, depending on the product. The last nutrition label change of this magnitude was more than 20 years ago, so we're hoping it will be another 20-plus years till the next one."
The new Nutrition Facts Panel is seen as more transparent in terms of nutritional information, transforming serving sizes into more realistic estimates of what people today eat and drink. "For sure, manufactures offering nutritious and high-quality products want to give consumers the most transparent and easy-to-consume information," Bauer agrees.
The large calorie count at the top of each label is probably the first thing consumers will notice. Line items for dietary fiber and added sugars will give consumers a clearer idea if a product is really high in fiber or low in sugar. Removing vitamin C and A and adding D and potassium reflect current medical professional guidance on American diet deficiencies and surpluses. Gone is the "calories from fat" description, as current research shows some fats are healthy. And choline may be included as a voluntary nutrient, where it wasn't allowed before. The new recommended daily intake for choline is 550mg for men and 425mg for women.
"Regardless of the proposed delay, the industry is getting behind this movement, and pushing toward greater transparency," noted Dagan Xavier, co-founder and vice president for data at Label Insight. "Transparency initiatives like [this] and digital labeling initiatives are a huge step forward in the effort to repair consumer trust, improve brand loyalty and even perceived brand worth. Definitely, the majority of people or companies we have spoken to are for this. Everyone's just trying to understand how they can do it with the least amount of pain."
Label Insight’s 2016 Transparency ROI Study indicated 94 percent of consumers are likely to be loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency and 39 percent would be willing to switch to a brand that provides transparency. Another 73 percent say they'd even be willing to pay more for a transparent product.
An online poll from Reuters/Ipsos released in October 2017 concurs. Consumers consistently want transparency in the food products they buy and in the nutritional labels products carry, it found. "Eighty-four percent of adults agreed the government should require nutrition information labels on all packaged food sold in grocery stores, and 64 percent wanted similar requirements for restaurants."
Interestingly, people want the labels, even though relatively few say they read them. Only 13 percent said they "always" read the Nutrition Facts when deciding to buy a product, the poll showed. Some said it was "good to know the government is requiring [the labels] to track what they put into food."
Reducing added sugars
Reducing added sugar was a priority. The FDA's final rule defines added sugars as those either added during processing or packaged as such, and include sugars, (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type. The rule excludes whole fruit, fruit pieces, dried fruit, pulps and purees from the definition of added sugars.
"The new breakout of added sugars will be helpful for [consumers] looking to reduce their overall sugar consumption," Bauer, a registered dietitian, points out. "The American Heart Assn. recommends no more than 6 teaspoons a day (24g) for, women and 9 teaspoons a day (36g) for men. Thus, people will now be able to separate natural sugar from added sugar on packaged products and keep a lid on their daily amounts from foods like flavored yogurts, cereal, bread, snack foods and desserts."
Kind Snacks (www.kindsnacks.com) began working on the project as early as summer 2016, claiming to be the first national snack brand to list added sugar content on its 60-plus snacks. Nearly two years ahead of the original deadline, Kind's move was a way to underscore its commitment to transparency. "When the FDA proposed that brands disclose the added sugar content, we immediately stepped forward and voiced our support," says Stephanie Perruzza, Kind's registered dietitian. "We're committed to creating snacks with as little sugar as possible without sacrificing taste." It reduced the added sugar in ingredients like yogurt coatings while its bars have less sweetness but more of the taste of the fruit and nuts, Perruzza adds.
To track added sugars, Stephens says companies must keep a log of the added sugar calculation for each product and even each ingredient. Nature's Path obtains added sugar amounts from all of its ingredients suppliers. "We then add the amount of added sugar in the additional ingredients that went into the products. These were tallied together to provide an added sugar value per serving of the product."
Dietary fiber in limbo?
Food companies incorporating fiber in their products will need to consider how and when to make changes to their declaration, as the new label requires pre-approval for some fiber ingredients previously included in the dietary fiber calculation. Last May, the agency redefined dietary fiber as naturally occurring fibers; all others will have to prove a physiological benefit. The agency also increased the daily value of dietary fiber, which includes both soluble and insoluble fiber, from 25 to 28g.
At this point, chicory root fiber, soluble corn fiber (resistant maltodextrin,) acacia gum and others are classified as "isolated or synthetic fibers," which has users and suppliers of these ingredients still waiting for the FDA's decision on whether or not they meet the criteria to be considered dietary fiber.
Commonly used fibers absent from the approved list include inulin, bamboo fiber, soy fiber, pea fiber, wheat fiber, cotton seed fiber, sugar cane fiber, sugar beet fiber and oat fiber. Food companies can still use fiber that's subject to review, but they don't yet know if they'll be able to count them as grams of dietary fiber on the updated Nutrition Facts panel. Some fiber suppliers say this leaves food manufacturers in the dark.
The FDA's guidance documents identify the type of scientific evidence required in a petition (including those for dietary fiber), and the approach it intends to use to evaluate the submitted studies. At this point, the FDA is completing its review of fiber petitions seeking approval under the new fiber definition. "This translates to nothing new to report on dietary fiber or added sugars at this time," says the AIB (American Institute of Baking) International (www.aibonline.org). "The delay is a direct result of actions from the Trump administration, but it's unknown how long the wait could [really] be. A food manufacturer could be at risk when the final date is set, so continue updating the process now."
The nutritional labeling update isn't the only shift the food industry will face in U.S. nutritional regulations. The Trump administration is scaling back school meal nutritional requirements set by the Obama administration, may lighten up on sodium reduction and the FDA may revoke the heart health claim for soy foods.
"We can expect to see more label mandates from both FDA and USDA," Stephens believes. "The [Nutritional Facts] labeling restructure has been the biggest change we have seen in a long while."
Bauer agrees. "For sure, this was a great first step, but it’s only the beginning. Consumers are getting smarter and making health a priority."