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If You Haven't Noticed, The Label on All Your Food Is Changing

Sheena Chihak

New health claims, symbols, and seals of approval pop up on food packaging every time we go grocery shopping. But if you’re one of the 59% of shoppers who almost always reads a label before buying new food, you’ve seen very little change in the nutrition facts label. That number-filled panel on the back of the package hadn’t changed since 2003—when trans fat was added. The current updates that started in 2016 and are still underway, are much more obvious.

Beginning January 1, 2020 large food manufacturers must be in compliance with the FDA’s new nutrition facts label design (smaller manufacturers have an additional year). If you’re a label reader, you’ve noticed many labels already adopted the new design. Here’s how they compare.

Courtesy of The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

New to the Nutrition Facts Label

These are the new aspects of the updated nutrition facts label and some explanation on what they mean.

Font

The most visible change is the increased size and bold font used to call out calories per serving and serving sizes.

Why you should care: Because that full-size bag of chips is a whole lot more than one serving. All the information below this point is based on the serving size. If you eat one cup of a food with a ¼-cup serving size, everything on the label needs to be multiplied by four.

Fiber

This actually looks the same, and it mostly is. But the FDA defined “dietary fiber” for nutrition facts to account added fiber. According to Claudine Kavanaugh, Director of the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, without a definition, fiber could be added to foods and counted as dietary fiber on the label without necessarily providing beneficial health effects.

Why you should care: Manufacturers must prove an advantage to human health for adding fiber.

Added Sugar

This is the one you’ve been waiting for! Sugars are now broken into two—total and added. Total sugar is the combination of naturally occurring and added sugars. Added sugars include ingredients like syrups, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, maltose, honey, lactose, and concentrated fruit juice added during processing. One caveat: Single-ingredient sugars like honey, maple syrup, and agave will only list total sugars because their sugars are naturally present.

Why you should care: When it comes to sugars, added sugars are the most worrisome because they’re primarily found in unhealthy, highly-processed items. They offer no nutrients, but add calories. Look at a soda label to see what we mean. Of the total sugars in that container, all of them are added. Compare that to whole milk with about 12 g total sugars, but 0 g added sugars. It’s clear which is healthier.

Micronutrients

This section looks the same, but the nutrients listed are different. Vitamins A and C are no longer mandatory, but vitamin D, potassium, calcium, and iron are. Actual amounts in milligrams, micrograms, and other units of measure are listed now, too, not just percentages.

Why the change? “In the early 1990s, American diets lacked vitamins A and C, but now vitamins A and C deficiencies in the general population are rare,” Kavanaugh says. “Vitamin D is a nutrient Americans don’t always get enough of from their diet, according to nationwide food consumption surveys.”

Why you should care: Each of these nutrients plays important roles in your body. Bone health, brain health, immunity, and blood pressure regulation to name a few. You don’t want to be deficient in any of these important vitamins and minerals.

Daily Values

These percentages (based on a 2,000-calorie diet) tell how much of your daily goal of each nutrient is in one serving of the food. Several vitamins and minerals got updated numbers based on current science. For example, total fat increased from 65 g to 78 g, dietary fiber increased from 25 g to 28 g, and sodium decreased from 2,400 mg to 2,300 mg.

Why you should care: Changes to daily values may make %Daily Value on foods you commonly eat look different than you’re used, but that doesn’t mean anything about the food itself changed. Use these values to determine if a food is high or low in a nutrient.

Serving Sizes

Not apparent just by looking is that serving sizes for about 30 commonly consumed foods such as ice cream, yogurt, and carbonated drinks changed. Serving sizes are based on how much people are actually eating not how much they “should” be eating. “FDA determines the reference amounts customarily consumed based primarily on national food consumption survey data,” Kavanaugh says.

Why you should care: Foods you buy often could have all new numbers on the nutrition label because the serving size changed. That doesn’t mean the nutrients provided changed a bit. For example, that vanilla ice cream always in your freezer may list more grams of fat, carb, sugar, and all the other nutrients, but only because the serving size changed from ½ cup to ⅔ cup to be more in line with what we were already eating anyway. The ice cream didn’t change.

Courtesy of The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Dual-Column Labels

Food packages small enough that they could be eaten all at once even though they contain multiple servings (a pint of ice cream or candy bar, for example) will have dual-column labels. One column has the values of one serving and the other column is what’s in the full package.

Why you should care: You don’t have to do the math!

A lot has changed about the way Americans eat since nutrition facts labels were put on our foods in 1993. We care more about sugar, trans fat, protein, and more individual nutrients as we try out different eating plans like the Mediterranean Diet and the Keto plan. This label update will help you make choices that best fit the way you eat.