By Alissa Rumsey RD, CDN, CNSC, CSCS
The Nutrition Facts label is getting a major overhaul for the first time since Congress mandated its inclusion on packaged foods in 1990. Half of Americans say they check the nutrition label on foods when they are shopping, however the majority of the label is often meaningless to them. Most people cannot relate grams of a nutrient or percentages of the daily value to the food that they are putting in their mouths.
In August 2014, the FDA released the proposed changes. Some of the changes will be helpful to consumers. The biggest changes:
- Serving sizes:
- Serving size requirement changed: The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act requires serving sizes to be based on amounts of food and drink that people typically eat, not on how much they should eat. People are eating more, so servings are getting larger – this will be reflected on the food labels. For example, the serving on a label for ice cream will now be 1 cup, instead of ½ a cup.
- Single serve labeling: Packaged foods and drinks that are typically consumed in one sitting will have their serving size changed to reflect the calorie and nutrient content for the whole package. For example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda would be labeled as one serving rather than more than one.
- Dual column: For certain packaged foods that are larger, the label will have to identify both “per serving” and “per package” calories and nutrient information. For example, a pint of ice cream, or a bag of chips. This way people will easily see how many calories they are getting if they eat or drink the whole package in one sitting.
My take: I’m not a fan of the serving size changes. Just because someone eats one cup of ice cream in a sitting, doesn’t meant that they should! This method of labeling doesn’t help to teach what a reasonable serving should be.
- Remove “Calories from fat”. Total Fat, Saturated Fat and Trans Fat are still required to be labeled.
My take: I am in agreement with this change. We know now that type of fat is more important than amount of fat. Hopefully by removing “calories from fat” we can better teach people that this doesn’t matter as much as the type of fat they are consuming.
- Include “Added sugars”. Added sugars are considered empty calories, as they don’t provide any beneficial nutrients. The FDA proposes adding this as a separate line in addition to total sugar. This will make it easier for a consumer to know how much sugar occurs naturally in the product versus how much was added to make it sweeter.
My take: This is a great addition – Americans have a really tough time deciphering the difference between natural and added sugars in products. This one is a bit harder to implement, as it will depend on what the FDA decides the definition of “added sugar” will be. For example, manufactures could decide to add fruit puree to sweeten something, which is in effect doing the same thing – adding sugar.
- Addition of Potassium and Vitamin D. Potassium has an important role in blood pressure regulation, and Vitamin D in bone health. These are two nutrients that many American’s don’t get enough of. Calcium and Iron will still be required on the label; Vitamins A and C could be included on a voluntary basis. The update also recommends that actual amounts of the micronutrients be listed instead of percent daily value.
My take: I love that they are going to be putting grams or milligrams instead of percent daily value, this makes the number much more meaningful to consumers.
- Increased Font Size. Calories and serving sizes will be emphasized in a larger font in order to address obesity and the high rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease that go along with extra weight.
My take: Many people don’t pay attention to the serving size, and eat more servings (and therefore calories) than they realize. I like that these two items will be emphasized, as it is something that most Americans do need to be aware of.
Despite some positive changes, there are still a number of things the new nutrition label will not do:
- Measurements are still meaningless for most people. I’d love to see teaspoons of sugar in a serving, instead of grams. Fewer people might buy that fruit-flavored yogurt if they realized it contained 5 teaspoons of sugar.
- Percent daily value remains. While the footnote is apparently going to be updated to better describe what “%DV” means, I still find this measurement to be pretty useless. Majority of Americans need much less of much more than 2000 calories per day, in which case the percent daily value doesn’t do you much good.
- The ingredient list isn’t addressed. You can’t just judge a food by its nutrition facts. Many food companies try to get around the label by using not-so-great ingredients and then fortifying the product with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Or calories are reduced by adding artificial sweeteners.
- No front-of-package labeling. Consumers still have no fast and easy way to distinguish nutritional value among similar products. Front of package labeling could help to highlight the good, bad or neutral value of a product.
No matter what happens with the labeling updates, it will be awhile coming. All the public comments will have to be reviewed, the final rules issued, and then the food industry will be giving time to implement them. In the meantime, I’ll continue to emphasize whole, real foods and cutting back on foods high in sugar, salt and added fat.
Alissa is a nationally recognized Registered Dietitian and Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach based in New York City. After working for six years with critically ill adults, she started Alissa Rumsey Nutrition & Wellness Consulting to help others improve their health and wellbeing, helping people create a positive, sustainable relationship with food and exercise. She works with companies to craft nutrition messages and curate effective online content and her expertise is regularly featured on television, online, and in print. Alissa earned dual Bachelor’s degrees in Dietetics and Exercise Science from the University of Delaware, and is completing a Master’s of Science degree in Health Communications from Boston University. In her spare time, Alissa can be found running in Central Park, traveling to far-off countries, and, as a self-proclaimed “foodie,” exploring the expansive New York City food and restaurant scene.