If you heard press reports last week about a possible makeover for nutrition labels on packaged foods and drinks, it’s hopeful news for the kidney community. For the first time since food labels were launched 20 years ago, the FDA is proposing some major changes. The new labels would highlight total calories, added sugars and exact amounts of certain nutrients, such as potassium and calcium. The National Kidney Foundation commends the FDA for this proposal and has advocated strongly for adding potassium content to all labels and expanding the requirement for full disclosure on calcium content. This is because it is essential that two of our very large constituent groups have this information. For those with hypertension, which affects 73 million Americans and can lead to kidney disease, increasing potassium and calcium intake might lower blood pressure. Eating more potassium-rich foods can prevent or delay the onset of high blood pressure.
On the other hand, for the 26 million Americans with chronic kidney disease, too much potassium and calcium can have a negative impact on their health. They must reduce their dietary intake of both of those nutrients. And yet, currently, food manufacturers are not required to list potassium content at all and calcium content is only listed as a percentage of the USDA recommended daily allowance, rather than the unit amount of calcium contained in a given food. So people who have specific requirements for each of those nutrients are left in the dark as to whether they can purchase certain foods. A survey conducted by the National Kidney Foundation and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) revealed that patients simply do not have enough information to follow the nutrition advice given to them by their dietitians. Nearly 60% of survey respondents had decided not to buy a food or beverage because the amount of potassium was not listed. Two thirds of the patients surveyed had no idea how much calcium was contained in a serving of food described on the label as containing 25% of the daily requirement.
As First Lady Michelle Obama put it, “Consumers should be able to walk into a local grocery story, pick up an item off the shelf and be able to tell whether it’s good for them and their families.”
For kidney patients, choosing food on a grocery shelf can be a life-and-death decision. The FDA has opened a 90-day comment period during which experts and members of the public can comment and provide their input on the proposed rules. After that, the FDA will issue a final rule and food manufacturers will have two years to implement the labeling changes.
While these proposed changes are encouraging, there’s still more that needs to be done. The NKF will be reaching out to the FDA once again to urge them to add phosphorus content to the new labels as well. In the U.S., phosphorus is added to many processed foods to help enhance their flavor and shelf life. High phosphorus levels can cause damage to the body, especially in people with chronic kidney disease whose kidneys can’t remove the added phosphorus. Extra phosphorus can pull calcium out of the bones, making them weak. Additionally, new research shows that cutting back consumption of phosphorus found in processed foods may reduce risk for developing kidney disease.