The FDA Nutrition Label Makeover: What You Need to Know

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Nutrition
on March 31, 2014
FDA nutrition label makeover

At the grocery store, do you pause to carefully read nutrition labels, or do you toss items into your cart without so much as a cursory glance at the back of the package? Whether you’re a scrupulous calorie counter or a careless consumer, don’t be surprised if you soon discover that the familiar foods labels have gotten a facelift.

In February, the Food and Drug Administration proposed significant changes to its nutrition label standards. If passed, these changes would mark the first major overhaul of nutrition labeling in more than two decades. In a nation faced with a dire obesity crisis, the redesigned labels aim to create greater transparency about the healthfulness of packaged food products—by displaying larger-font calorie counts, shedding light on added sugars, and more accurately reflecting modern-day serving sizes.

Thus far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive among the nutrition community. “I think it’s huge step forward,” says Samantha Cassetty, M.S., R.D, Nutrition Director at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute and editor of 7 YEARS YOUNGER: THE ANTI-AGING BREAKTHROUGH DIET. “People deserve nutrition information that’s clear and easy-to-read in order to help steer them towards healthier food choices.”

The subject of a nutrition label makeover has been bouncing around the FDA for almost a decade. So why now? It’s partially an effort to combat obesity, partially an effort to stay up-to-date with the most current research. Since the 1990s, there’s much we’ve learned about nutrition—we now know that not all fat is bad, for example, and that excess sugar is to blame for many of our diseases and conditions.

“For 20 years consumers have come to rely on the iconic nutrition label to help them make healthier food choices,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D, in a press release. “To remain relevant, the FDA’s newly proposed Nutrition Facts label incorporates the latest in nutrition science as more has been learned about the connection between what we eat and the development of serious chronic diseases impacting millions of Americans.”

Curious as to what the revamped labels will look like? We highlight some of the key proposed changes below.

proposed formatcurrent fromat
The proposed FDA label (left) vs. the current FDA label (right)

More visible calorie counts. The new label would display calorie information in large, bold-faced font to make the number pop-out. “The total number of calories in the package is going to be much easier to see and to notice at a glance,” Cassetty notes.

More realistic serving sizes. Be honest—how often do you pull a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream from the freezer and actually limit yourself to the suggested ½ cup serving? Chances are you end up consuming twice—or maybe even three times—that ½ cup serving amount. To better reflect the reality of how Americans eat, the FDA will update serving sizes based on recent food consumption data—so a 20-ounce bottle of soda will be considered one serving, not two and a half. What’s more, the new label will present calorie information for the whole package of certain food products that could be consumed in one sitting or in multiple sittings.

Removal of “calories from fat” stipulation. “We now understand that total amount of fat in the diet is not important. We need to consider the quality of fat,” Cassetty explains. The redesigned label will continue to highlight total fat in addition to saturated and trans fats, which are the two harmful forms of dietary fats.

Emphasis on added sugars. For the first time, the amount of added sugars will be indicated on the nutrition label. “Added sugars in the diet are sneaky—they’re found in foods you wouldn’t necessarily expect, such as breads, salad dressings, soups and more. They really contribute to obesity problems and other related diseases,” says Cassetty. If the new changes are implemented, you might be surprised to discover, for example, that your so-called “healthy” container of yogurt contains almost 15 grams of added sugar—almost as much as a coke.

Emphasis on Vitamin D and potassium. Vitamin D is crucial for healthy bones, while potassium has been proven to lower blood pressure. However, most Americans are lacking in these two crucial nutrients, Cassetty notes. The FDA changes would require manufacturers to list the amount of vitamin D and potassium present in the product, and no longer require the labeling of vitamins C and A, which few Americans are deficient in.

Updated %Daily Values. The FDA would update the Daily Value percentages for nutrients such as calcium and fiber. These percentages would now be shifted to the left-hand column.

Overall, Cassetty is optimistic that the newly designed food labels, if passed, will spark change among both manufacturers and consumers. In particular, she suspects that the “added sugars” clause might galvanize manufacturers to re-formulate their products in an effort to drive down sugar counts. “The upshot of transparency is innovation,” Cassetty notes. “I think food manufacturers will rise to the challenge. There will still be unhealthy choices in the marketplace, of course, but I think we’ll begin to see an effort to create more healthy food products.”

Cassetty also commends the new label’s greater spotlight on overall total calories. “We know that Americans really need to start focusing on their calories,” Cassetty says. “If we’re able to show people how many calories they’re consuming in a clear and consistent fashion, they will begin to change their decisions.”

The FDA is accepting public comment on the proposed changes for 90 days, after which point they will issue a final rule. Manufacturing companies will then have two years to implement the changes.