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4 Things to Know about the New Food Labels

July 16, 2016

After 20 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is changing the nutrition labels you see on packaged foods to reflect how Americans actually eat.

The new labelling highlights how much added sugar is in food products and adjusts serving sizes to reflect the fact that most Americans eat way one than one serving of food in a sitting. The changes to nutritional labels will begin to appear on products in July 2018 and the FDA hopes the changes will help consumers be more informed about what they eat. Here’s what you should know: 

Added Sugars are Now Included

Added sugars now will be included on the label, listed in both grams and as percent Daily Value (how much a specific nutrient in one serving of food contributes to a 2,000-calorie diet). The FDA defines added sugars as those that are added during food processing or packaged foods such as syrups, honey and concentrated fruit and vegetable juices. The definition does not include natural sugars found in fruits, jams or 100-percent fruit juice. The FDA says it will include added sugars on nutrition labels because research has shown it’s difficult to eat a healthy diet if you consume more than 10 percent of your daily calories from sugar. Currently, Americans get 13 percent of their daily calories from sugar, which likely comes at the cost of other healthy nutrients they should be eating. By making this addition, the FDA is helping consumers be more aware about the actual amount of added sugar in their favorite packaged foods. Seeing this on the label may cause many consumers to change their behavior — and that is a good thing. 

Serving Sizes Have Been Updated

Unfortunately, Americans eat larger portions than they should. The existing serving size requirements haven’t been updated in about 23 years. However, in that time, the average serving size has increased. For example, the nutritional labels previously used 8 ounces as the typical serving size for a serving of soda. With the updated labeling, this will change to 12 ounces. The FDA says the serving size labelling should change because people often consume these items in one sitting. I understand the agency’s goal to reflect the reality of what Americans actually eat, but my fear is that this may encourage people to put even more on their plates. The key to maintaining a healthy weight is making healthy food choices, and a lot of this has to do with portion control. If one serving is now larger than it once was, then that means people now have permission — whether that was the FDA’s intention or not — to consume larger quantities of foods. This could be a slippery slope. 

Larger Font on the Labeling

To help consumers be more aware of the nutrients in packaged foods, the font size on nutrition labels also will change. The FDA is increasing the font size for calories, serving size and servings per container. Making these items more visible could help consumers make better choices before they put a product in their grocery cart. 

Different Nutrient Information

Another key change: the list of required nutrients also will be updated. Calcium and iron will still be required, but Vitamin D and potassium now will be required, as well. Manufacturers also must declare the actual amount of calcium, iron and potassium in their products, while declaring the amount of grams for other vitamins and minerals will be voluntary. 

Vitamin A and C no longer will be required, but manufacturers voluntarily can include this information. Total fat, saturated fat and trans fat will remain on the label, but the FDA is removing “Calories from Fat” from the label because it says the type of fat people consume has more of an effect on their diet than the amount of calories. 

Overall, these changes are a move in the right direction. They provide more clarity for consumers so that they can make more informed decisions about what they eat — and how much of it. The inclusion of trans fat was one of the most significant changes to nutritional labels the FDA has made in recent years. We’ve seen how this move has raised awareness among consumers and caused the food industry to change its habits. How many times have you seen items in the supermarket that are now labeled free of trans fat? That’s in large part due to a 2003 FDA rule that required manufacturers to list the amount of trans fat in their products. Hopefully, we’ll see the same change with added sugars, which now know makes it difficult to maintain a healthy diet and may elevate risks for chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. 

The bottom line is that you need to change your behavior in order to improve your diet. But this can’t happen if you don’t have the knowledge to do so. The changes to food labels coming in 2018 will give consumers more of this knowledge and hopefully empower them to make the best choices for their long-term health.