03/07/2014 01:00 pm ET Updated May 07, 2014

Better Food Labels: Have We Hit the Nail on the Head?

Improving food labels, as planned by the USFDA and much in the news over the past week or so, is a welcome thing. But I do think we have cause to wonder if all the fanfare and media hype are really warranted. When all is said and done, what improvements are in the works, and how much will they really matter?

The planned improvements include putting calorie counts in larger, bolder font; doing the same with added sugar; and being realistic about serving size. Up until now, it has been routine, for instance, to offer nutrition details for an 8-ounce serving of soda on a 16- or 20-ounce bottle. But who ever drinks half a soda?

So that third change does seem genuinely meaningful to me, and may help people better judge their calorie intake -- although that remains to be seen. Over time, calorie intake may have a lot less to do with how accurately we keep score, than with how reliably we fill up. If we continue to eat the kinds of foods Michael Moss and others before him have told us are being willfully engineered to maximize the calories it takes to feel full and addict us, keeping more accurate score may not help much.

I think the other two planned changes may help less. Putting calories in bold simply makes information that was already available easier to see, so it's not really a solution to any problem of public health nutrition -- it's a solution to the problem of impaired vision. Reading glasses tend to do that job already.

We eat way too much added sugar, so I certainly support highlighting that. But here's the problem with the approach: diet soda runs this gauntlet looking like a perfect food. It has no calories and no sugar, no matter the serving size. So in a system that emphasizes the selective negatives of calories and sugar, diet soda is perfect.

I don't think diet soda is anything like perfect, although all the reasons why are a story for another column (one I've already written, in fact).

And there's another fairly obvious problem. Put a food like walnuts into a bag or can that requires a nutrition label, and the calorie count will likely be intimidating. But what the calorie count of walnuts cannot tell you is that this extremely nutritious food has, among its many virtues, the capacity to provide a lasting sense of fullness called satiety. My own lab is among those studying the capacity of high-calorie, but highly nutritious, and highly satiating foods like walnuts to help, not harm, efforts at calorie and weight control -- while promoting health.

Quite simply, a system that makes diet soda look better and walnuts look worse is questionable at best. It may be a better food label, but it certainly doesn't hit the nail on the head. We could do just that.

Famously, there is a certain risk of seeing a world full of nails when you happen to have a hammer. That is a usefully precautionary tale, but it can backfire as well. It can obscure the genuine value of inventing a hammer when there really is a world full of nails needing to be driven. I like to think I devised my hammer accordingly.

With the help of an illustrious group of colleagues from throughout North America, I developed the overall nutritional quality index (ONQI) algorithm, which for years has seen daylight as the NuVal nutritional guidance system. The algorithm incorporates virtually all of the important nutrient properties of foods, weights each one independently based on its known and important health effects, and sums all that up into a number between 1 and 100, the higher the number, the more nutritious the food. Calories and added sugar get the attention they deserve, but in the context of everything else that matters -- and serving sizes are standardized.

The results? A study of roughly 100,000 people conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health showed that the higher the average NuVal scores of their foods, the lower their rates of both chronic disease and premature death. Use of the system in real-world settings has been associated with remarkable benefits, such as the loss of over 100 pounds. One of the many virtues of more nutritious foods is that in general, they reduce the calories it takes to feel full -- and can thus facilitate weight loss without the hunger of dieting. A recent study reported at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association found NuVal to be the fastest, easiest method to identify more nutritious foods among the variety assessed.

On the NuVal scale of 1 to 100, the higher the number the more nutritious the food, which has been applied to over 100,000 foods, those high-calorie walnuts score above 80 due to their high overall nutritional quality. Diet soda scores around 15 and regular soda gets the 1 it deserves. The system works more like GPS than a hammer. Importantly, it doesn't tell you where to go, it just tells you how to get there. You're the boss, but if you do care about better nutrition, you deserve to know where it is without having to do a lot of heavy lifting or number crunching. NuVal is currently in about 1,700 supermarkets nationwide, and also in a number of businesses, schools and hospitals. All told, it is providing nearly 30 million people with at-a-glance, evidence-based guidance to overall nutritional quality.

I am pleased that food labels are better than they once were -- thanks largely to the work of my friend and colleague, former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler. I am pleased that they are poised to get better still.

But the widespread burdens of obesity and chronic disease have proven themselves, over a span of decades, to be as tough as nails. We have the means to confront that challenge with a suitable hammer, but apparently lack the resolve. In that context, I think our culture needs to ask: Is "better" actually good enough?


Dr. David L. Katz;

Author, Disease Proof