The FDA Dishes Up New Food Labels

See what changes are coming.


Published:

Via Wikimedia Commons//The U.S. Food and
Drug Administration

That label you’ve come to expect on the back of your bag of chips will soon carry some new information. After two decades, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has overhauled the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. The changes, announced in May, are based on a combination of public input, updated scientific and nutritional information, and dietary recommendations from expert groups. The aim is to make it easier for consumers to make better-informed food choices.

“It’s been highly anticipated,” says Gabrielle Marlow, registered dietitian and nutrition manager for Christiana Care Health System’s weight management program. "I feel there was a little too much information on [the old labels] in general. It just wasn’t clear for people. So I think the changes that they’ve made are definitely worthwhile."

The new label retains the minimalist back-and-white, two-column design it had when it was introduced back in 1993. And it still highlights many of the same categories, such as cholesterol and sodium. But even though it may not look all that different, the new label emphasizes some categories more than others. And the way in which some information is calculated has also changed.

Here’s how the refreshed label differs from the old one:

1. Serving sizes. This is probably the most important update, as it reflects the way people actually eat rather than what food companies feel is most reasonable. The FDA has "clarified that there is possibly more than one serving in a package," Marlow says. "People would look at a number and think that was for the whole package, not realizing it was for a single serving and that there might be 10 servings in that package."

2. Calories. This number is now highlighted in large letters; it previously matched the same type size as the other nutrition information. The FDA says the change reflects the country’s growing obesity epidemic.

3. Added sugars. This new category is important given the dietary guidelines urging Americans to cut down on sugars contained in processed foods. This information allows consumers to distinguish between added sugars that have no nutritional benefit and those that occur naturally, as in fruits and dairy. "When we get a higher percentage of our calories from added sugars, it’s harder to meet our nutritional needs and stay within a reasonable calorie level, so it’s helpful to see that," Marlow says.

4. Multi-serving products. The revised label will feature two columns to indicate the per-serving and per-package calorie and nutrition information for food products that can be consumed in multiple sittings or in one fell swoop. This includes 24-ounce bottles of soda and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. "Consumers won’t have to do the math," says Marlow.

5. Odd-sized packages. Packages and containers that fall between one and two servings—such as a 20-ounce bottle of soda—will now be labeled as one serving.

6. Sodium and dietary fiber. The percent daily values for sodium, dietary fiber and vitamin D will change for many foods based on the new 2015–20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Institute of Medicine recommendations. For example, previous recommendations called for Americans to consume up to 25 grams of fiber per day. The new guidelines call for 28 grams per day. So for a food containing 5 grams of fiber, the old label would have listed 20 percent for the percent daily value; the new label would list 18 percent for the percent daily value. For sodium, the percent daily value used to be based on a maximum of 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day and will now be based on 2,300 milligrams a day.

7. Vitamin D and potassium. The older labels only had the percent daily values for vitamin D and potassium, but the new ones will now also show their amount in grams. "These are really important nutrients that we’re learning a lot about," says Marlow. "They’re really telling us how much of those nutrients are in the food, not just giving us a percentage based on our needs—which, in my point of view, is much more usable."

8. Vitamins A and C. These will disappear from labels since deficiencies are rare.

9. Fat. Because research shows that the type of fat is more important than the amount, the "Calories from Fat" line will no longer be required. "A certain amount of fat is necessary for good health, and it’s a pretty satisfying way to get some of our calories," says Marlow. However, "Total Fat," and the subcategories "Saturated Fat" and "Trans Fat" will still be required.

10. Percent Daily Value. The explanation of what this is will remain at the bottom of the label. It is still based on a 2,000-calorie diet but is more streamlined.

Most manufacturers will need to use the new label by July 26, 2017. However, manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales will have an extra year to comply.

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