Food Label Reboot

What to know about the recent changes to food labels and how they can help you make better choices

By Heidi Reichenberger McIndoo, MS, RD, LDN

If you have ever flipped over the back of a package of food to read a nutrition label, you know that the laundry list of numbers jumping out at you can be a bit overwhelming. It can be difficult to decode. What do all those numbers mean, and how do they relate to you and your nutritional needs?

Fortunately, the US Food and Drug Administration has recently made changes to the Nutrition Facts panel, making it much easier to understand and use. Legally, food manufacturers are not required to use the new labels until the summer of 2018, though some have already started and many more will gradually begin using them between now and that deadline. This primer will give you all you need to know to be ready when you see them.

Why Read a Label?

First, a reminder of why it’s important to look at nutrition labels: When you’re trying to eat nutritiously—whether it’s to maintain a healthy weight, control blood sugar or cholesterol levels, keep your blood pressure in check, or for any other reason—understanding what you’re putting into your body is the first step to knowing what changes you need to make. The best source of that information is the nutrition labels on the foods you eat. Once you know what you’re eating and the changes you need to make, the labels will help you be aware of what and how much of the specific nutrients are found in the foods you eat.

Simple Changes

Although there are a couple of big changes to the label—including new listings of added sugars, amounts of important nutrients, and major changes in serving size information—we’ll start with the smaller, simpler changes, which make it easier to quickly glance at the label and get some information.

  • Calorie and serving-size information is presented in larger, bolder print. Now with just a quick check, you’ll know what is considered a serving and how many calories are in one. It’s not that you need to be counting the calories of everything you eat all day, but having a rough idea of how many calories from different foods contribute to your daily intake can be helpful when making food choices.
  • You will no longer see “calories from fat” represented on the label. We now know that the type of fat you eat is far more important than how many calories from fat are in foods.
  • The amount of vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium will now be listed on the label—not just the “% Daily Value.” This change makes the information much more user-friendly, as you will know the exact amount of each nutrient. There’s no more needing to use higher math just to know how much calcium you’re getting from your yogurt.

In addition, an explanation of what the % Daily Value means will now be included at the bottom of the Nutrition Facts panel. The % Daily Value of nutrients has been on labels for years, but its exact meaning has been a bit confusing for many. The label will now state: “The % Daily Value tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.” For example, a food containing 25 percent of the daily value of protein provides a person who eats 2,000 calories a day with 25 percent of their daily protein needs. If you eat less than 2,000 calories, you’ll be getting less than 25 percent of your needs; if you eat more than 2,000 calories, you’ll be getting more than 25 percent of your needs.

Sweetening the Deal

The change I am most excited to see on the new label is the distinction made between “added” and “natural” sugars. For years health professionals have recommended that we limit our intake of added sugars, which have been linked to a variety of health concerns. Eating too may added sugars can also mean you’re not eating enough nutrient-rich foods, leaving you with a less-than-adequate intake.

The problem is, up until now we’ve had no way of knowing how much added sugar we’re eating. Sure, we know that a can of soda is full of added sugar, so we’re not surprised to see high sugar amounts in such products. But when we see food labels listing sugars in yogurt, milk, fruit products, or other whole foods, we might pause and choose not to eat those foods, thinking they are unhealthy, when in fact those foods contain natural sugar—sugar that is naturally found in the whole food as it’s grown or made.

You still want to pay attention to balancing your natural sugar intake with other elements of a healthy diet like protein and fiber, but you don’t need to strive to avoid natural sugars. As a result of the new labeling, it will now be easy to understand how much of the sugar in a given food is natural and how much has been added. Now you can look at a box of raisin bran, for instance, and determine how much sugar comes from raisins and grains and how much has been added. This will help you keep track of how much added sugar you’re consuming.

The recommendation is to limit added sugar to less than 10 percent of your daily calories. For someone eating about 2,000 calories per day, that works out to fewer than 50 grams, or 12 teaspoons, of sugar per day. Keep in mind that if your caloric needs are less, your sugar intake needs to be less.

Serving It Up Right

Another significant change to the food label is the “Serving Size” information. The words Serving Size are now presented in a large bold font at the top of the label, calling consumers’ attention to the size of a serving from the start; this will help us avoid the common pitfall of plowing through a “snack” bag only to discover that it actually contains five servings. You might still choose to eat more than one serving, but you’ll have a clear sense of the amount of each nutrient, as well as sodium, calories, and other considerations.

One serving of crackers, for example, may have only 150 milligrams (mg) of sodium; three servings means you’re eating close to 500 mg, or roughly a quarter of the recommended daily amount. Or if three small cookies total 11 grams of sugar, the six you ate have delivered more than 5 teaspoons of sugar.

In addition, if a package of food is larger than one serving but it could realistically be eaten in a single sitting, a new rule comes into play: those foods must have their nutrition information presented in a dual-column format, with one column listing the traditional per-serving information and a second column listing the per-package nutrition information. You will be able to easily make your food choices based on more-appropriate information.

The labeling also includes changes to the measurement of serving sizes, which now more accurately reflect what Americans really eat. Current serving sizes are based on what we ate in 1993, but our serving sizes have changed since then—they’ve gotten bigger. The new serving sizes that are used to measure nutrients and calories are more representative of actual practice. For example, a pint of ice cream is now considered three servings instead of four.

Whether you’ve never read a food label in your life, you read them religiously, or you’re somewhere in between, the new Nutrition Facts labels will be useful to you. It will be easier to find the information you want, and the useful information will be more readily apparent. Both of these factors make the new labels your go-to source for making wise and healthy food choices.