In February 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it is planning to update the Nutrition Facts label, the first changes since 2006 when information on trans fat was introduced. I thought this would be a great opportunity to touch base with Siri Zimmerman, MS, RD, CDE*. When I last talked with Siri, she offered some tips on reading food labels, so I wanted to get her thoughts on the proposed changes, as well as an update on her work in diabetes care.
When Siri was offered the position as Nutrition Educator at the Diabetes Partnership of Cleveland (then the Diabetes Association of Greater Cleveland) in 2009, her initial reaction was not what you might expect. “To be completely honest, I was horrified,” she confided. “Diabetes was a disease I really didn’t understand that well. I had friends with type 1, and my grandma had type 2 but I didn’t understand it that well. Yet I took the job anyway and it ended up being the best experience for me by far.”
That position also required Siri to serve as dietitian for the Partnership’s Camp Ho Mita Koda. “That was the most incredible thing to be a part of,” she said. “I worked with more than 250 kids living with type 1 for four summers. A lot of different issues came up, and being able to see them firsthand and actually being a part of the kids’ lives, versus just learning from textbooks or from people’s recall of what happened, I think that was probably one of the things that really solidified the idea that I wanted to become a diabetes educator and stay in this field.”
Now Siri serves as Program Manager for the Diabetes Care Center for the Henry Ford Physician Network in Detroit, Mich. “My work is a little bit of everything,” she said. “It’s planning for the program. It’s curriculum development. It includes best practice updates for all the staff and mentoring them through any changes in education and American Diabetes Association guidelines. Every once in a while I get to sub in and teach a class or see patients for medical nutrition therapy if needed, but most of my work is administrative now.”
As a dietitian, Siri frequently fields questions about nutrition labels. “I think it’s at a point now where the labels are still very confusing,” she said. “For the lay person who is interested in health and trying to figure out what should be best for themselves and their families, it’s still a lot of information to process. This label that we have right now raises a lot of questions. Many people don’t know what nutrients to look at or they’re looking at the wrong thing or they’re confused by the percentages versus the grams. By cleaning up the label little by little, I think we’re going to get clearer information. That way, as educators, we’re going to be able to help the patient understand the label better.”
FDA has proposed several updates to hopefully address these and other concerns. Siri outlined some of the highlights:
A. The servings per container will be displayed more prominently, larger and bolded near the top of the label. This will include more realistic information to reflect the amounts people currently eat.
D. Instead of information on vitamins A and C, the label will list vitamin D and potassium, in addition to calcium and iron.
E. The label will include “Added Sugars” to help consumers identify how much sugar has been added to a product.
Once the rules are finalized, FDA proposes that the food industry be given two years to update their packaging.
The appearance of the information represents the biggest changes. “If you look at the new label compared to the old label, the really important information is now very prominent,” said Siri. “On the old label, everything was the same font size, whereas on the new label, the servings per container and the calories really stick out. That information is bolded and much larger. And by moving all those percentages to the left-hand side, it makes the label a lot cleaner and easier to read. I think the new label looks a lot less intimidating and a lot more user-friendly for people to understand and to learn.”
Paying attention to serving size and total carbohydrates is still key, according to Siri. “People living with diabetes still want to look at the serving sizes and the total carbohydrates in those serving sizes,” she said. “I suggest they measure out a serving, especially the first time they have a new product. Measure it and put the serving into the bowl that they usually eat it out of. That way, they can see how much a serving is. Don’t just estimate from the beginning because often it’s a little bit off.”
The Nutrition Facts label allows people to make informed decisions about what they’re eating. “Each person may have their own individualized diet plan of how many grams of carbohydrates they’re targeting per meal and snacks,” she said. “The Nutrition Facts label is a tool for you to use to make the best decision for your meal plan. While many foods can fit into a healthy meal plan, we still want people to focus on healthy food like fruits and vegetables, whole grains and products that have carbohydrates from more naturally-occurring sugars.”
Siri recommends seeking out expert advice. “People living with diabetes should continue looking at the servings and the total carbs and then call their doctor if they have questions,” she said. “Also, people will be able to find information about the new labels on fda.gov.”
Dietitians can also offer insight and personalized eating plans. “If people living with diabetes haven’t seen a dietitian, it would be great for them to find a dietitian to work with them to understand the new labels better,” she said. “I especially encourage people to meet with their dietitian more than once because it may take a couple of visits to be able to solidify a meal plan and make sure it’s working for them. Plus, diabetes is a progressive disease that can change over time. Being able to meet with a dietitian every year or every couple of years can really help.”
Please note that it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare team before making any diet or lifestyle changes. Also be aware that the nutritional values depicted in the Nutrition Facts label images are only examples to portray the proposed changes and do not constitute dietary advice or endorsement.
With all that we’ve learned about nutrition and American eating habits since FDA introduced food labels in 1993, it makes sense to give them a makeover. I know I look at the nutritional information every time I’m in the grocery store. I’m grateful to have a resource like Siri to walk us through the changes. My thanks to her for sharing her insight.
All the best,
Disclosure: Siri Zimmerman received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.
*“CDE” is a certification mark owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.