I’ve never been one to read nutrition food labels, whether out of pure laziness or sheer confusion. Luckily, my distaste for nutrition labels may soon be coming to an end: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is requiring a revamp of the nutrition label for the first time in more than twenty years.
Michelle Obama announced the new changes on May 20, saying, “Very soon, you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.” Although I’m not exactly sure FLOTUS was on the money with this one (the design of the label itself is not undergoing major changes), hopefully the new changes will at least make the label easier to interpret—if you know where to look. Roughly 800,000 food product labels must comply with new standards by July 26, 2018.
To help you out, we brought in registered dietician and nutritionist, as well as Verily contributor, Suzanne Hollander. With her help, we’ve given you a quick breakdown of the most important things you need to know about the new food label while also pondering the question: Will this really help America’s health?
01. Realistic Serving Sizes
Finding out you just had three servings of mac and cheese instead of the "recommended" one-third of the box can be an alarming realization. And how about ice cream? I know we've all been guilty of downing a pint solo from time to time. It's an indulgence for sure, but it's slightly deceiving to see, say, 240 calories listed on a label when that pint contains four servings.
Fortunately, the FDA has realized the irony of labeling one pop-tart sleeve as two servings (when we all know I’m going to eat both of them). Instead, the FDA now dictates that the serving size should take into account what consumers actually eat, not what they should eat.
There’s been considerable controversy over whether this change will actually help people eat healthier. Hollander says it will certainly shed light on the importance of portions: “I think that this addresses a bigger issue, which is [that] the manufacturers [are] packaging amounts of food that are really inappropriate for a single serving.” She stresses that serving size will not be synonymous with suggested serving, and, instead of perpetuating the obesity epidemic, will hopefully lead manufacturers to reconsider the way they present their products, similar to when trans fats were introduced to the food label.
02. Bigger Calories
Although the characteristic format of the nutrition label will not be changing, the font size will—well, some of it. The number of calories you eat will be physically emphasized with a font three times larger than the rest of the label. In light of the serving size expansions, we can safely assume that not just the font size will be increasing but also the actual number of calories as well. In regard to this new change, Hollander has a special warning for all of us: “Less isn’t necessarily better.” Yes, calories can be a quick and easy way to make a food decision. But when it comes to meals, Hollander advises going with the option that will fill you up and give you nutritious value—even if it has more calories.
03. Added Sugars
The next big change to the label may be small in size but will be big in impact—if not to us, then at least to the food industry. Now there will be another line for added sugars—which manufacturers such as Ocean Spray have taken issue with. Instead of just seeing the total sugar you're consuming, you will see what type of sugar was added in processing. In other words, if you’re drinking fruit juice, you’ll be able to know how much sugar was added that wasn’t naturally in the fruit.
With increased transparency, Hollander says, “The hope is that we would start to see a reduction over time of the unnecessary added sugars”—unnecessary being the key word here. Hollander reminds us that added sugar can have a greater use than just sweetening a product: It can also increase a product’s shelf life, making it less expensive. So added sugar isn't purely evil—something the Sugar Association has been very vocal about.
04. Updated Daily Values
Perhaps less applicable to daily life are the new daily values being enforced according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. Sodium and dietary fiber will have new amounts for the percent of daily value column; Vitamin D and potassium will now include a measurement in grams as well as a percent; and we’ll have to say goodbye to Vitamins A and C. Hollander says these revisions aren't game changers, as she doesn’t find the Percent Daily Value to be particularly helpful because (1) we don’t think of our food in percentages and (2) it’s based on a 2,000 calorie diet that not everyone can or should be following.
Hollander says these changes are a step in the right direction and long overdue. But there could still be a lot more done to help consumers like us eat healthier. Even though the FDA serving size and calorie changes have made nutritional content a little easier for us to calculate, Hollander says that’s not necessarily the first place we should look. She recommends scanning the ingredients list in the tiny print at the bottom of the label because that’s where you can find out what’s really in your food. The FDA reports, "The ingredient list on a food label is the listing of each ingredient in descending order of predominance." This means that the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last.
“If you can buy something that doesn’t have a nutrition label, you’re better off,” Hollander notes. If you’re confused or concerned about the new nutrition label changes, there are always trusty fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Nothing has changed about them!
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