Simple Nutrition Facts for Complicated People

Kim Egan

Kim Egan, Founder, Saltbox Consulting

Nutrition labels have been much in the news lately, presumably because we have once again won the Fattest Nation contestFDA and various nutrition researchers have all put out some thought-provoking information for us to ponder.

The Problem:

1.     People don’t understand nutrition labels.  FDA learned this by conducting extensive and expensive Internet-based research that showed that if you ask people to compare products made by different manufacturers to determine which is “healthier,” (whatever that means) they will not get it right.  In other words, they will get it wrong. I learned the same thing, much less expensively, by talking to the more strident members of my family at the dinner table.

2.     Pretty much nobody reads nutrition labeling on menus.  Among the reasons cited are “confusion” and the “priority of . . . hunger.”   Good luck fighting that one.  Hunger has been a priority since we descended from the trees or crawled out of the primordial soup or whatever your view of creation might be.

My Insightful Observations:

  • People who read food labels are slimmer than those who don’t.    So if we could fix problems one and two above we might not be the Fattest Nation anymore.
  • Women read nutrition labels and men don’t.   These results are possibly confounded by the fact that as far as I know, men don’t do much grocery shopping and if they do, they are simply executing the very specific instructions of the woman of the house, who may or may not be talking to the man at the store on a cellphone (“no, honey, the blue one with the red lettering, not the yellow lettering”).
  • If you allow food companies to decide what constitutes a serving size, you will end up with a label that says that one pickle can feed a family of four for three months.
  • Mexican-American and other Hispanic men read food labels more than other groups of men, e.g. WASPs. I assume this is because WASP men leave food procurement to the housekeeper or, if times are tough, to the wife.  Recall George H.W.  Bush’s astonishment at how much milk cost.

My Humble Solutions:

  • Get real about serving sizes.  I know Kraft says one box of macaroni and cheese serves four but everyone knows it serves ONE person.   Ask any college student.  A box of macaroni and cheese can serve four only if the four are super tall supermodels trying to go from 120 lbs to 112 lbs the night before New York Fashion Week.
  • Provide dietary information that is useful for consumers, not information that is helpful to manufacturers.Food Labeling
    • For example, FDA is considering adding an “added sugar” component to the label. The idea, I guess, is to help people get a grip on how processed a product may be.  Which is curious because most products that require a nutrition label are processed to begin with.  Hostess Twinkies (may they rest in peace) do not grow on Hostess Twinkie trees, so one can safely assume that everything in a Twinkie is “added.”
    • It would be more helpful to specify the kind of sugar in a product (glucose, fructose, sucrose, etc.), because some people actually need glucose while pretty much no one actually needs fructose unless it comes in the form of a piece of real fruit, and real fruit does not carry nutrition labels.  The Corn Refiner’s Association will no doubt disagree with me.
  • Revive Home Economics in public schools so that children learn what the information on nutrition labels means in the first place.
  • Call Mayor Bloomberg.  He seems to be getting this all pretty much right, in part because he is making food companies remove ingredients that are “harmful when used as directed.”  Trans fats are gone and salt content is down 25 percent.  All without the consumer noticing.

Kim Egan is the Founder of Saltbox Consulting, a firm that provides legal and compliance advice to entities regulated by FDA and USDA.  She can be reached at and on Twitter at @saltboxlaw.

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