Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD
Everybody’s talking about the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) newly proposed food label…. from First Lady Michelle Obama to your local news channel to nutrition professionals. Marion Nestle, a well-known and distinguished food advocate and Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, calls the new food label, “an extraordinary accomplishment.”
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, applauds the FDA’s new label and states it largely aligns with nutrition recommendations made to FDA by the Academy.
FDA has not changed the food label in over 23 years. So, frankly, it’s well overdue. The new label is a result of years of debates and negotiations amongst government agencies, policy makers, scientists, food manufacturers and food industry stakeholders.
With so many numbers, percentages, calories, grams, milligrams and even micrograms on the food label, trying to decipher the label can be a daunting task. Let’s dive into each section and break it down into manageable bite-size elements.
Here are some of the things you need to know in order to intelligently interpret the label that will be adorning our foods in a couple of years and make healthy food choices.
Bold New Highlights
To get the message across more clearly than ever, the new food label has Calories in big bold letters. Calories are the first numbers that catch your eye. Not only does this make the information easier to find, this change reflects the obesity epidemic in the United States.
According to the 2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), public health experts estimate that two-thirds of American adults and one-third of American children are classified as overweight or obese. One out of twenty American adults are extremely or morbidly obese.
High calorie diets are one major contributor to these rising statistics. With the bold font of the calorie value on the food label, hopefully consumers will pay closer attention to their calorie intake. After all, it’s all about calorie balance…. Calories into the body must be lower than calories used by the body in order to result in weight loss.
Another very distinctive change — Added sugars are displayed on the new food label, a value not included in the original food label. Though highly debatable, the public health experts won the battle with food and sugar industries, to get added sugar data incorporated.
While it’s obvious to most people that there are added sugars in cookies and donuts, hidden added sugars are more difficult to decipher. For example, sugars are usually added into pasta sauces and salad dressings. Naturally occurring sugars are present in fruits and dairy products. By including the added sugars value on the food label, the consumer can determine which sugars are naturally occurring versus sugars that are added by the food manufacturers.
NHANES reported that American children consumed 16% of their daily calories from added sugars, while American adults consumed approximately 13% of their calories from added sugars (12.7% for men and 13.2% for women). The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 10% daily calories from added sugars. Foods, not beverages, are the highest contributor to added sugar intake.
Inclusion of added sugars on the food label could result in changes of recipes used by food companies. This happened when trans fat was added to the food label in 2006. Many formulation changes in food manufacturing occurred in order to reduce or omit the trans fat content of the food products. It remains to be seen if added sugars in food products will diminish or vanish in the same manner that trans fats seemingly disappeared. Time will tell….
It’s safe to say that serving sizes on the old food label were misleading. Some drink bottles stated that there were 2.5 servings per container. Or, snack foods claim there are 3.5 servings in a bag. The new food label will reflect what regular people will typically eat in one sitting. In other words, the whole container if you have the munchies. On some packages, you will see data listed in two columns: one serving and one container. This slight but crucial change on the food label should alert consumers to what they are truly eating.
Vitamins and Minerals
Different micronutrients are represented on the new food label, to better reflect the current health issues typically encountered by American consumers. Also, actual amounts of the micronutrients are included on the label, not only %DV. For example, a food will show both 260 mg calcium per serving, and 20% DV of calcium. Knowing how much calcium is in a cup of yogurt is especially helpful when personalized recommendations from a physician or dietitian differ from the 1200 mg value used to calculate the %DV. Some nutrition professionals advise their clients to ignore the %DV completely, because it can be confusing. The actual amounts of nutrients in foods are far more useful for you to know.
Vitamin D and calcium are noted, due to the rising incidence of osteoporotic bone disease and vitamin D deficiencies. Osteoporosis is more prevalent among Caucasian women with a family history of decreased bone mineralization. NHANES reported an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency among Americans, from 1988 to 2006.
Iron values continue to appear on the new food label, with the ongoing concern of iron deficiency anemia. In developed countries, iron deficiency anemia is most prevalent among infants, toddlers, young children, females of childbearing age, female athletes, and the elderly.
Potassium is a newcomer to the food label. People with certain medical conditions, such as kidney disease, or athletes and outdoor workers who sweat for long periods of time, need to pay attention to their intake of potassium. Further, diets rich in calcium and potassium are players in the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), and may reduce high blood pressure.
Vitamin A and vitamin C are ‘voluntary’ now, so will likely disappear from the label. Deficiencies of these vitamins are rare in America today.
Percent Daily Value
Arguably, the percent Daily Value (%DV) is the most confusing part of the food label. To complicate matters, some Daily Values have changed based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Institute of Medicine recommendations for 2015-2020.
For example, dietary fiber recommendations are now 28 grams per day (formerly 25 grams per day). A food with 6 grams of fiber per serving will now reflect 21% DV, when it used to reflect 24% DV. Guidelines for sodium have also changed, reducing from 2,400 mg per day to 2,300 mg per day. The changing %DV figures on the new food label do not reflect changes in the actual food, only changes in the standards upon which the calculations are based.
Out with the Old
Certain elements of the original food label are eliminated completely. “Calories from fat” will no longer be noted, based on scientific research studies demonstrating that the type of fat consumed (monounsaturated fat versus saturated fat) relates more to health than the amount of fat consumed. Types of fat, saturated fat and trans fat, will still be stated to aid the consumer in wise choices.
The nutritional recommendations table at the bottom of the label has been streamlined, but continues to reflect the general advice of 2,000 calories per day. Keep in mind that not every person needs 2,000 calories each day. Some people need more and some need less, so be sure to take your individuality into account when interpreting %DV.
What About Health Claims?
“Low fat,” “Reduced Sugar,” “Low Sodium,” and other various nutrient content claims on food packaging are not affected by the new food label conversion. The changes are simply to the graphic Nutrition Facts, not extending to other areas of the actual food packaging.
It’s important to note, that all health claims on food packages have actual legal definitions designated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For example, “Reduced Sodium” is defined legally as 25% less sodium per serving than the regular food. “Low Sodium” is defined as less than 140 mg sodium per serving. “Sodium Free” may be stated on foods with less than 5 mg sodium per serving. In other words, “Reduced Sodium” may still be considered a high sodium food. It’s just lower than the regular version of the food. But, the statements “Low Sodium” and “Sodium Free” encompass an actual amount of sodium. You can see what all of the health claims mean at FDA.
FDA also has standards as to what health claims may be made on packaging of foods and supplements. Qualified health claims are based on solid scientific research and evolve as new studies are conducted. Health claims are based on relationships between a nutrient and a disease state, such as calcium and osteoporosis, or dietary fiber and some forms of cancer. These standards still hold true and are not affected by the new food label conversion.
You’re in a hurry at the grocery store and need to read your food labels quickly, so what do you look for? First and foremost:
- The serving size
- The calories
These two values provide a great deal of information to the consumer at a glance.
All data on the food label is based on the serving size listed. For example, if two cookies are 200 calories, but you typically eat six cookies at a setting… you will consume 600 calories. Keep in mind that the food company’s serving size is not always your personal serving size. Tons of useful information can be gleaned from the food label, but the bottom line is the calories per serving, and what that serving looks like. Your serving is what is going into your body!
When Will This Show Up in My Store?
The FDA has placed a deadline of July 26, 2018, for food companies to adapt to the new food label. Smaller food companies are given an extra year to make the conversion. You will likely see changes beginning to occur within a few months.
The new food label does not tell you what to eat, rather it informs you of what you are eating. You are the decision maker as to what you put into your body and knowledge is power!
Here are the highlights:
- Calories are big and bold
- Servings sizes are realistic
- Added sugars are brand new
- Vitamins and minerals are updated
- % Daily Values are based on new guidelines
- YOU are still in charge of your eating
Dr. Jennifer Bowers is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 25 years of experience in clinical nutrition and health promotion. Her private practice is dedicated to enhancing the lives of her clients through healthy lifestyles and nourishing food. Dr. Bowers earned her PhD in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Arizona. She resides in Tucson, Arizona, with her family and enjoys hiking, swimming, cycling, cooking and traveling.