If you’re among the many grocery shoppers who regularly use the Nutrition Facts label on food packages to help guide what you buy, you likely have noticed big changes of late. To reflect the latest nutrition research, the iconic label mandated by the FDA has undergone its biggest revision since it was introduced more than a quarter century ago. And it’s the first update since 2006, when harmful trans fats were required to be listed. (Some older folks may recall the 1970s predecessor to the Nutrition Facts label—a small, hard-to-read box that revealed just a modicum of nutrition information and wasrequired only on certain foods.)
It’s taken a while for the new label to get here, though. Approved by the FDA in 2016 and originally set to go into effect in mid-2018, the labels were delayed until January 1, 2020, due to requests by food manufacturers, who successfully lobbied the Trump administration. Manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales have an extra year to comply. And in October 2019, the FDA announced that it won’t take enforcement action against companies that fail to meet the new requirements in the first six months of 2020. But still, the new label began showing up on many food packages months ago, as companies got a head start.
The overall look of the Nutrition Facts label remains the same, but there are important (and sometimes subtle) changes. Here’s an overview, from top to bottom.
More realistic serving sizes—to better reflect the actual portions Americans typically eat (which in turnchanges all the nutrition numbers based on “one serving”). For example, a serving of ice cream, previously a half cup, has been increased to a more realistic two-thirds cup. A serving of soda, formerly 8 ounces, is now 12 ounces. In addition, packages that contain between one and two servings—such as a 20-ounce bottle of soda or 15-ounce can of soup—must be labeled as a single serving, since most people will consume the whole bottle or can. Products that have two to three servings per package, such as a pint of ice cream, are now generally required to have dual-column labeling that shows “per serving” and “per package” nutrition numbers. Don’t let these expanded serving sizes be an excuse to automaticallyeat more, however.
What Are ‘Daily Values’?
It helps to have a basic understanding of what Daily Values (DVs) and % DVs are, since they figure so prominently in deciphering nutrition labels. Here’s a quick guide.
Bigger, bolder type for calorie counts—to get your attention, so you can better see how quickly you will reach your daily calorie limit. (Note that the nutrition label is based on a 2,000-calorie daily total, but your own calorie needs are likely to be higher or lower.) This will make it easier to compare calorie counts across similar products while shopping and, at home, might make you think twice before eatingmore than one serving.
Calories from fat
No more “Calories from Fat”—an acknowledgment that the type of fat (unsaturated versus saturated) is more important than the amount of fat. Not all fats, such as those in nuts and avocados, are “bad”(though all fats are calorie-dense and thus high-fat foods should still be consumed in moderation). Note that “Total Fat” remains, with a Daily Value (DV) based on 35% of daily calories (78 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet)—though this is inconsistent with the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which no longer put a cap on total fat. Also still listed are “Saturated Fat” based on a DV of less than 10% of daily calories (less than 20 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet) and “Trans Fat” (though these harmful fats were essentially banned from the food supply in 2018).
“Added Sugars”—finally added. The old label did not distinguish between sugars naturally present in foods (such as the sugar in milk and fruit) and sugars added during processing (such as the sugar added to yogurts and breakfast cereals) but rather lumped them together under “Sugars.” Now, it’s easy to see that half the sugar in your sweetened applesauce or in your fruit yogurt is added sugar. Though all sugars affect the body similarly, added sugars are a source of “empty” calories, meaning that they deliver sweetness without any accompanying beneficial nutrients. A cup of baked sweet potato, for instance, naturally has about 13 grams of sugar—about the same as in a cup of fruit punch drink—but the sweet potato delivers nearly a quarter of the Daily Value (DV) for fiber and potassium; almost half the DV for vitamin C; and a hefty dose of vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body as needed).
The DV for added sugars on the new labels is 10% of daily calories (50 grams per 2,000 calories—about 12 teaspoons of sugar). The average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of added sugar daily, with 40% or so of that coming from sugary sodas and other beverages. As the FDA points out, it’s difficultto meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10% of your total calories from added sugar.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association, and the World Health Organization all recommend limiting added sugars. Much research has linked them to greater risk of some chronic conditions, including increased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides, hypertension,cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, not to mention obesity and dental cavities.
By the way, “added sugar” doesn’t mean only table sugar (sucrose). Sugars include any caloric weetener added in processing, and they go by dozens of names, such as high-fructose corn syrup, juice concentrate, agave, honey, molasses, evaporated or dehydrated cane juice, raw cane crystals, malt syrup, brown rice syrup, beet sugar, crystalline dextrose, and fruit nectar, many of which may sound healthier than regular sugar but are not. The new label should spare you some of the effort of squinting at the ingredients list to decipher them all.
Vitamins and minerals—newcomers meet old-timers. The bottom portion of the nutrition label lists four nutrients. Potassium and vitamin D appear for the first time and have increased DVs. These are nutrients you may not be getting enough of in your diet. Potassium-rich foods can help lower blood pressure, while vitamin D is important for bone health. Highlighting these two nutrients on the label may encourage people to consume more of them. Calcium (also with a new DV) and iron remain mandatory label listings.
Vitamins A and C have been dropped, though food companies can still voluntarily list them. While American diets used to be low in A and C, deficiencies in the general population are unusual today—thus their elimination on the new label. Manufacturers may also list other vitamins and minerals, as was the case before, from folate to vitamin E—as typically seen on nutrition bars and many other fortified foods.
While select vitamins and minerals still feature prominently on the new label, we advocate for a diet that focuses more on whole foods rather than on individual nutrients. After all, foods that are fortified may look good on the label, but they aren’t necessarily the healthiest foods. Manufacturers may take advantage of the new requirement for vitamin D, for instance, and simply add the vitamin to unhealthy junk food.
Paying attention to the new Nutrition Facts label when shopping can help you select healthier foods. But don’t just go by what the numbers show. It’s still a good idea to always scan the ingredients list to find products that have whole grains or other healthy ingredients at the top andhave a minimum of additives (the longer the ingredients list, the more likely the food is highly processed and of questionable nutritional value).
Also, don’t assume that foods that boast about being a “good” or “excellent” source of a particular nutrient are healthful in all ways. They may be fortified foods that are high in sugar, salt, or otherundesirable ingredients.
Lastly, keep in mind that many of the healthiest foods are those that don’t have any nutrition labels atall, notably fresh fruits and vegetables.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Can You Trust Calorie Counts?
Published March 02, 2020