Fat Facts in the New Nutrition Panel
Posted by , MS, RD, LD, FADA

I admit it. When new food label standards come out, I turn into a bit of a regulatory nerd. I can’t wait to pull up the full regulation and read all the details – the preamble, the comments, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) response. Truth be told, in this detail is where a true understanding of the FDA’s decisions can be found.

Having worked over the past several years to promote the benefits of healthier fats, I was most intrigued to understand decisions that were made about the fat category on the new Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP). Here’s a summary of what’s changing and not changing with fat messaging:

  • Total Fat. While the FDA acknowledges the type of fat is more important than the total fat contents of a product, the new label will still declare total fat. Fat is a calorie-yielding macronutrient of which consumers need to be aware, and low fat, high carbohydrate foods can increase risk of chronic diseases. Additionally, FDA believes consumers can use the total fat and saturated fat declarations to determine the amount of unsaturated fat in a product. They did agree to remove calories from fat from the new NFP.
  • Unsaturated Fats. Labeling of a nutrient on the NFP is mandatory when there is public health significance or science to support a link between a nutrient and health as well as a recommended quantitative intake level of that nutrient. Labeling of a nutrient is voluntary when there is only one or the other – scientific support or a recommended intake level. On the current nutrition label, mono- and polyunsaturated fats are voluntary. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans clearly indicate the replacement of saturated and trans fat with mono- and polyunsaturated fats as a recommendation, demonstrating scientific support. According to the FDA, however, there is not an established recommended intake level for mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and therefore, these healthier fats do not meet the criteria to be mandatory on the nutrition label. FDA indicates consumers can use total and saturated fat label data to determine the amount of unsaturated fat in the food. In my opinion, this is a disservice to consumers as they will have to do math to determine amounts and they won’t be able to differentiate between mono- and polyunsaturated fats in the food. Unsaturated fats are too important to healthy eating habits to be left as voluntary nutrients.
  • Individual Fatty Acids. In the detailed comments, there were recommendations that FDA give special treatment to individual fatty acids. The FDA has determined no evidence shows that biosynthesis of EPA and DHA is insufficient in the general population and therefore is not supporting the addition of these omega-3 fatty acids to the NFP. Additionally, there were recommendations that some saturated fatty acids, such as stearic acid, be subtracted from the total saturated fat listing. FDA looks at a chemical definition of macronutrients, and therefore, all saturated fats will be included on the NFP.
  • Trans Fat. FDA has made the determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), a key source of trans fat, is no longer generally recognized as safe (GRAS), and must be removed from foods by June 18, 2018. In light of this, there was discussion as to whether trans fat was still relevant on the new NFP. FDA estimates that even after the ban of PHO, there will be 5,000 foods with trans fat, and therefore this nutrient will continue to be listed on the label.

Throughout the process of developing the regulations for the new Nutrition Facts Panel, FDA looked to other sources of dietary guidance, which is essential in order to provide consistent messaging for consumers. However, they fell short in their approach to unsaturated fats, and for health professionals, the challenge will be to ensure we educate consumers on foods that are good sources of these fats like avocados, nuts, and canola oil.

The compliance date for the new Nutrition Facts Panel is July 26, 2018, with smaller businesses having a one-year extension.