The nutrition facts label gets a makeover

Most people use the Nutrition Facts Label to make informed decisions when buying food – whether it’s evaluating the sodium or fiber content, or looking for added sugars. The Nutrition Label and Education Act, implemented in 1990, required nutrition labeling for almost all packaged foods, labels that listed reference values for nutrients and reflected newly developed regulations for serving sizes.

Since then, the Nutrition Facts Label has changed very little, but a much-needed makeover with significant changes is on the horizon. Food manufacturers originally had until July 2018 to employ the new label, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted an extension till January, 2020. Many speculate that in granting the extension, the FDA was giving in to industry objections, but fortunately, many companies are already compliant. Below is a summary of the important changes to the Label, which reflect the latest scientific evidence regarding the relationship between diet and chronic disease.

Servings and Calories
Serving sizes and calories are now more prominent, both to command attention and to reflect the quantities people actually eat or drink. Packages that contain more than one serving but could be consumed all at once will show nutrition facts for the entire item (after all, who drinks half of a bottled drink?!).

Added Sugars
Excess added sugars are associated with chronic disease and also contribute ‘empty’ calories. It’s about time added sugars got singled out! Added sugars include those added during processing (yes, even honey and maple syrup) and from concentrated juices. You will also see a daily value (DV) assigned to added sugars; please know that no more than 10% of your calories should come from them (that’s 50 grams per day for a 2,000 calorie diet).

Required Daily Values
Say goodbye to mandatory values for vitamins A and C, and hello to potassium and vitamin D, which are both shortfall nutrients in Americans’ diets. In addition to listing the percent of DV, the actual amount must be listed. DVs reflect the highest needs among all population groups, but not everyone knows what that value is or how it applies to them, so listing a unit of measurement is helpful.

Nutrient Unit Changes
Some of the daily values have changed (both voluntary and mandatory) and will be reflected on the new label. For example, sodium decreased to 2,300 mg, potassium increased to 4,700 mg, and fiber increased to 28 g. Regulations for dietary fiber may also change, as what is counted as dietary fiber must have a proven health benefit. This excludes some sources of isolated or added fibers, such as inulin and chicory root.

Nutrient Daily Value Changes
The way that some nutrients are measured will also change. For example, folate will be reported in Dietary Folate Equivalents (DFE), vitamin A in Retinol Activity Equivalents (RAE), Vitamin E in mg, and Vitamin D in mcg.

What About GMO Labeling?
A bill that mandates the labeling of genetically engineered foods was signed into law in 2016; it directed the USDA to create GMO labeling regulations by July 2018. Compliance with these requirements is also set for January 2020. What these disclosures will look like remains to be seen.

The next time you are reading labels, remember this: while quantitative data has a place in making healthy decisions, don’t forget to scan the ingredients as well, as they paint the bigger picture and tell you more in terms of quality. Ultimately, food choices need to be considered in the context of one’s entire diet and lifestyle; one nutrient alone doesn’t make or break a food’s value. Understanding what’s in your food, and how it’s produced, along with its nutritional facts, are the keys to making healthy decisions. Or, you might focus on foods that don’t even require a label, as they are some of the healthiest foods of all!