The Nutrition Label, “Healthy” and Cancer Prevention

food cloud label

Food packaging claims and labels has been making a lot of news lately, with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spurring a series of changes that will affect how shoppers buy and assess foods, including what healthy means. That’s important for cancer prevention because a healthy diet —and understanding what foods you’re eating — play a large role in cancer risk.

Fruits, vegetables and other plant foods all contain health-promoting and cancer-protective compounds. But with two thirds of the country overweight or obese, better understanding of calories in packaged foods can also help people get to and stay a healthier weight. And if all Americans were at a healthy weight alone, that would mean an estimated 130,000 fewer cases of cancers every year.

Here’s some of the big news that the FDA

 1. What “healthy” really means
Right now, by the FDA definition some sugary cereals could be considered healthy but an avocado is not. That may change with the FDA announcing they are reevaluating what it means for a food product to claim it is “healthy” one. The hard look at what healthy means was instigated by KIND bars, when the FDA first told them they could not use the term “healthy.’ Currently, food companies can only claim they are healthy if the food meets certain fat, sodium, cholesterol and other nutrient information set in the 1990s. 

KIND objected and last month, the FDA agreed with them, announcing they will re-evaluate the term and will ask for the public’s comments.

For cancer prevention, AICR frequently uses the term a “healthy” diet – meaning our New American Plate (link). That’s a way of eating that includes plenty of foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and nuts. The rest can be foods from animals, such as eggs, cheese, chicken, fish, or red meat. AICR recommends limiting red meat to 18 ounces (cooked) per week and avoiding hot dogs along with other processed meats.

2. Changes coming to the Nutrition Facts Label
Last week the FDA finalized their changes to the Nutrition Label, making it easier for consumers to see how many calories they are actually eating and the amount of added sugars. Both are positives to help people reduce their cancer risk. Avoiding foods with a lot of added sugars is one of AICR’s Recommendations for Cancer Prevention.

Nutrition Label
You can read more about these changes affect cancer prevention on our blog.

3. The Nutrition Facts Label matters
Findings from an FDA survey released last month show that the majority of US adults are using the Nutrition Facts Label. The Health and Diet Survey was directed to a nationally representative group of adults by phone in 2014.

Key findings include:

  • 77 percent of U.S. adults reported using the Nutrition Facts label always, most of the time, or sometimes when buying a food product.
  • 79 percent of adults reported using the label often or sometimes for first time purchases. They used it most often used to see nutrient contents of a product or to compare nutrients between products
  • Almost 60 percent of people who don’t use the Nutrition Label said the information is too hard to understand; three quarters of adults said using the label also takes too much time. Two-thirds of shoppers often or sometimes use the serving size on the Nutrition Label.
  • Almost nine in ten U.S adults said they used claims such as “low in sodium,” “rich in  antioxidants,” “contains no added sugar,” and “no sugar added” when buying food products. Yet, only one third of adults thought these claims accurately describe the products.

4. Evaporated cane juice is sugar

Avoiding foods with a lot of added sugars is one of AICR’s Recommendations for Cancer Prevention. That will be easier with the new Nutrition Facts Label but currently, it can be challenging. Sugars can hide under many different names in the Ingredients list.

Last week, the FDA said that Evaporated Cane Juice must be called sugar. The purpose, it stated, is to “enhance consumers’ ability to make informed choices among sweeteners by promoting accurate and consistent labeling.” Here are some other terms for sugar.

many names of sugar

5. The term “natural” on labels may change

“Natural” is another term that can confuse consumers, who may think it means it is healthier, organic or not genetically modified. (None are true.) In 2014, the FDA asked consumers to voice their views on what the term should mean. On May10th the public comment period closed, which means the FDA will review the thousands of comments.

When talking about cancer preventive diets, AICR experts and other health professionals often use the term minimally processed. That means foods that do not contain large amounts of added fat, salt or sugar. Looking for these foods helps ensure there is relatively small amounts of added sugars or other additives that can lead to weight gain.

Source: FDA Health and Diet Survey (pdf) May 2016.

FDA Guidance and Regulation, Food: "Natural" on Food Labeling

FDA Guidance and Regulation, Food: Guidance for Industry: Ingredients Declared as Evaporated Cane Juice

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    Published on June 15, 2016

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