March is National Nutrition Month in the United States, but for some there is nothing to celebrate despite the Agriculture Department’s best efforts. Over a third of Americans are classified as obese, and government programs and guidelines haven’t changed this growing trend.
There are two major tools that the federal government uses to help consumers to eat healthier meals: the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition guide and the FDA’s Nutrition Facts Panel.
Consider MyPlate: It employs a picture of fruits, grains, vegetables and protein with dairy (like a glass of milk) on the side. If you look carefully, you can get some idea of the relative portions, but they are fairly close in size, so it doesn’t help a lot. It also doesn’t tell you how much of each to eat nor whether every meal needs to look like the plate. Should breakfast have the same portions and ratios as dinner?
As one nutritionist put it, “An icon isn’t going to help you eat smarter, lose weight, get in shape or feel better about yourself.”
There are additional hurdles with the terminology. The icon requires users to understand which foods fall into groups like “protein.” There’s also an access problem; one study in 2013 found that 57 percent of Americans were unlikely to visit ChooseMyPlate.gov.
The FDA’s chief nutrition tool, the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP), is much easier to access. The panel appears on all food products, including foods that are overseen by both the FDA and USDA. However, the panel is simply too difficult for many consumers to use. One study found that a significant number of people did not have the reading or math skills to understand the information on food labels.
It should come as no surprise that a study conducted by a Department of Agriculture economist concluded that the NFP mandated by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act had no effect on dietary intakes of total fat, saturated fat or cholesterol. Nor should it surprise us that most Americansfeel that trying to figure out what to eat is harder than doing their own taxes.
Perhaps government efforts to educate consumers on the intricacies of nutrition and “percent daily values” of complex nutrients is simply not the best approach for the majority of consumers. With nearly two-thirds of Americans being overweight or obese, 45 million Americans dieting each yearand $60 billion spent on diets, there is a huge market for new private-sector efforts to solve these problems.
There are new products coming on the market every day to track calories, provide meal planners, monitor exercise, and provide recommendations for where and what to eat when eating out. These devices will make it easier to choose foods that help with weight and general medical conditions for individuals by employing learning algorithms with personal data to improve outcomes. It will allow consumers to make better choices and no knowledge of nutrition science or characteristics of foods will be necessary.
The problem is that these technological innovations may be considered medical devices and may cut across traditional FDA regulatory lines. In fact, the FDA gives examples of these in its recent “Nonbinding Recommendations” and says that “these mobile apps MAY [capitals in original text] meet the definition of medical device” — and indicates that it hasn’t decided how to regulate them yet. If the FDA does decide to regulate them as medical devices, progress will slow to a regulatory plod and many products will never be produced because of the time and expense to go through the FDA’s regulatory maze.
Rather than adding red tape to these devices, government agencies should explore ways to allow innovation to proceed while monitoring health outcomes. Otherwise, those who are already left behind by federal efforts that they don’t understand or don’t use will continue to suffer chronic diseases.