The Nutrition Facts panel printed on 6.5 billion food and beverage packages sold in supermarkets today has been around in its current form since 1994, when the little black and white box of truth replaced the "nutrition information per serving" list.
The new label received good reviews; it even attracted the attention of the White House. In 1997, President Clinton cited its clarity in issuing an award of design excellence. One of the benefits of the redesign was that a little math and some self-awareness could help a U.S. consumer chart his or her own eating habits and sketch a rough estimate of the calories, fat, carbs and protein consumed every day.
Unfortunately, Americans tend to be selective in what line they choose to focus on - if they look at all. When low-fat diets hit their stride, shoppers were quick to turn the package over to check levels of fat, to the exclusion of all else. Then along came the low-carb phenomenon, and the eyes shifted down a few lines to check carb contents.
Now, it appears that sodium is about to get its turn - and it's all the better for the American diet. The American Medical Association this summer threw its support behind a public awareness campaign focused on the extraordinary levels of sodium found in most packaged foods. Statistics show that the average American is taking in about 4,000 milligrams of sodium every day. That's almost twice the 2,400 milligrams per day limit suggested by the Food and Drug Administration, and nearly nine times the maximum amount recommended by the AMA. Any food containing more than 480 milligrams of sodium in a single serving should be classified "high sodium," the organization stated.
The time is right to tackle this next component of the nutrition panel. Shoppers have grown more concerned about what they're eating, and they are reading ingredient lists, nutrition information and front-of-box claims like never before. They are beginning to comprehend the idea of a "portion," and realize that what they formerly thought was a helping was actually two or three - or four. The pressure will be squarely on the industry's shoulders to respond. To their credit, many have already acted - Campbell Soup Co. began offering low-sodium versions of many best-selling soups back in the spring, well before the AMA announced its sodium-reduction initiative. Other companies are pursuing similar initiatives. Kraft helped introduce consumers to the idea of a 100-calorie, portion-control pack (Wow, that was an eye-opener); almost everyone has eliminated trans fats from their snack foods, led by PepsiCo/Frito Lay.
Slowly, consumers are beginning to see the Nutrition Facts panel as a complete entity, representing a food's total impact, rather than selectively reading only what matters to them at the moment. This is a subtle, but critical shift in thinking, and needs to be encouraged. Retailers with staff dietitians, outreach events, and health and wellness sections need to carry what manufacturers have done through to the shelf, and talk up the benefits of becoming well-versed in the language of labels, ingredients and nutrition facts.