FDA’s Proposed Nutritional Labeling

The FDA has proposed new regulations for food labeling and determining portion size. While giving clearer information to consumers is a good first step, when will they finally ban flavored food? Just kidding (also, in solid or liquid form which both pose real dangers (e.g., choking and drowning); also, kidding).

The proposal seems good for as far as it does go (see Federal Register: for publication on 3 March 2014: Food Labelings: Revision to the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels to download the PDF; the serving-size proposal is a separate document and proposal (both proposals have some information combined at FDA: Press Announcements: 27 February 2014: FDA proposes updates to Nutrition Facts label on food packages)). One missing feature would be something to improve digital access to nutritional information and ingredient listings for foods.

There are, apparently, mobile applications that can do optical character recognition (OCR) to import nutrition facts, but something more universal might help both improve adoption of digitally tracking food and of the use of better physical-to-digital handling in wider industries. Also, using a digital format could keep the printed version succinct while possibly expanding manufacturers’ participation in the publishing of voluntary data.

Also noteworthy is that at-present the regulations do not require a specific font. Quoting from the proposal (pp. 251-252):

In addition, we are requesting comments on […] requiring the use of a specific font.

It also mentions (pp. 274-275) that the current regulations “[…] specify […] that the type style should be a ‘single easy-to-read type style’ but no specific type style is required. However, […] we urge that certain type styles […] be used” with a parenthetical: “i.e., Helvetica Black, Helvetica Regular, Franklin Gothic Heavy.”

Although I’ve never seen a Nutrition Facts panel in Comic Sans, I do wonder if font variability exists and how much it affects the use of OCR. Also, certain format variations (there are a number of them, even for existing labels) may make OCR very hard, including lack of opaque background (e.g., on foods wrapped in clear plastics), deforming packaging (again, most likely thin plastics).

Digitally available nutrition information could eventually lead to much simpler printed information. Some countries employ much simpler labels, usually in the form of five pips with specific data such as caloric content, fat, sodium, etc. This takes up less space than the FDA’s tabular design, integrates with packaging better, and comes across as gentler, less authoritarian.

They could also go further by setting requirements for display of the information digitally. Junk food would be required to display in Comic Sans, while organic vegan baby food would be required to display in a blackletter.

No more calories from fat, not even voluntarily. But it’s not that simple. They still allow calories from saturated fat voluntarily and it says they considered making that mandatory.

They stuck to a reference diet of 2,000 calories. Again, importing the information to a digital system would allow recalculation based on an individual’s dietary need. The printed label should be basic, but the digital display could be very much tailored to the reader. Digitizing the ingredients would also make it much easier for those with allergies and sensitivities to avoid problem foods.

On the whole it is very good to see this vital service get a reroll. The only real danger is that this step in the right direction will end up being followed by such a long pause that we won’t have readily-digitized, expanded information available on foods until around 2034.