Update (May 20, 2016): Today, in a move years in the making, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced approval of the new Nutrition Facts Label. Manufacturers have two years to comply with the new regulation, though they could still challenge the changes in court. (Those with less than $10 million in annual food sales will have three years.) Keep reading for everything you need to know about the changes.
This article was originally published on May 17, 2016.
It’s been more than 20 years since the Nutrition Facts panel was added to the back of packaged food products, and it’s remained virtually the same ever since. But soon, you’ll be seeing some pretty big changes — including the addition of an “added sugars” line, adjustments in serving sizes, and a bigger (literally, bigger) emphasis on calories.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because these updates were first proposed back in 2014 and have been reviewed, revised, and debated for years now. Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally submitted its new guidelines to the White House Office of Management and Budget for a regulatory review — the last step before they can be officially approved and put into use.
Though the FDA has said it will not speculate on when, exactly, the final rules might be approved, it's safe to say we're in the home stretch. We spoke with nutritionist and intuitive eating counselor Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN to get the details on how the new Nutrition Facts will look, and how they might change how you eat.
Goodbye "Calories From Fat" — Hello, "Added Sugars"
Among the things being removed from the new nutrition panel is the “Calories from fat” line. “That number is not super useful, so I’m glad it’s going away in favor of something that does seem to be important,” Harrison says.
That important something is added sugar: Under the new label regulations, companies will be obligated to include the amount of sugar that’s been added to a food as well as that amount's percentage of the daily recommended value.
“This is huge,” Harrison says. “Right now, there’s really no way to tell by looking at the label what’s added and what’s natural.” This is an important distinction because there is no nutritional benefit of added sugars — such as refined white sugar and other sweeteners (including natural-sounding ones like agave) that are added to foods solely for flavor during processing. Plus, most of us are consuming way too much of them, contributing to higher rates of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
On the other hand, natural sugars, such as fructose in fruit or lactose in dairy, are generally considered to be better for you because they are found in whole foods that do offer nutritional benefits. For example, an apple offers your body fiber in addition to sugar; the lactose in milk or yogurt comes with protein.
While there is no reason to limit natural sources of sugar, the American Heart Association recommends keeping your added sugar intake to six teaspoons or about 24 grams per day. Because many of the foods we eat (granola bars, cereals, yogurts, and many others) contain both types, though, this has historically been hard to monitor.
Harrison stresses that even when you start seeing it on the label, you shouldn’t feel the need to meticulously count every gram of sugar you consume. (That’s really no way to live.) Instead, focus on using this information to weed out those products that have needlessly high amounts of added sugar. For example, do you really need the cereal that has 25g of added sugar — or can you live with the one that only has 10g?
The Vitamin (& Mineral) Shuffle
The new label will still be required to list a food’s calcium and iron content, but Vitamin C and Vitamin A listings will become optional. In their place, Vitamin D and potassium will become mandatory. “This is following the trends in scientific studies,” Harrison explains. “There’s been so much research on [the importance of] vitamin D and potassium in recent years, and they’re nutrients that many of us don’t get enough of.” Indeed, the FDA notes that Vitamin D is important for bone development and general health, while potassium helps lower blood pressure.
Vitamins A and C are still important, but studies show that deficiencies today are rare, so it doesn’t make sense for us to focus on them.
Serving Sizes Get Real
One of the most lamented things about the current nutrition label is how inaccurate serving sizes can be: Who honestly splits up their 20-ounce bottle of soda or 15-ounce can of soup into two servings? Under the new guidelines, items small enough to be reasonably eaten in one sitting will be labeled as such — one serving.
Serving sizes for larger packages may be adjusted, as well, to account for the fact that Americans today eat more than they did when the current reference values were established way back in 1994.
Realistic serving sizes will surely eliminate some confusion, says Harrison, and they may even help people feel less guilty about what they’re eating (we're pretty sure guilt never helped anyone make sustainably healthy choices). “If you’re looking at a current food label, and it says 'this has three servings,' and you just had the whole bag, that’s a recipe for feeling bad about yourself,” she says. “It’s definitely helpful that the new labels will reflect normal eating habits.”
Calories Get Bigger
No, that doesn’t mean the numbers themselves are going up — but the font size certainly is. Under the new guidelines, the “Calories” line and “Servings per container” line will be larger and placed in bold type.
Harrison’s advice? As long as you’re eating mindfully, and including plenty of nutritious, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, there’s no need to pay much attention to this change. Worrying too much about calories can be a slippery slope: “I think calorie-counting could get in the way of people realizing what satisfies them,” she says. “Try not to let the exaggerated font size make you afraid to eat things you like — just trust your body.”