At the beginning of this year, the Food and Drug Administration made some major changes to nutrition labels. If you're like me and avoid skimming the back of food packages, you may not have noticed. But if you have to read the info — if you're trying to avoid a certain ingredient, for instance — you may have wondered what was up.
The FDA website claims that the revamp "makes it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices." We asked nutritionists for their opinions. Can a font swap and some updated data really change our eating habits? Should they? Here's what they had to say.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lowered their recommendations for how much sodium people over age 14 should have per day from 2,400 milligrams to 2,300 milligrams. The new label requires food manufacturers to update their "percent daily value" information to reflect that change. (That's not a huge deal. If a food contains 170 milligrams of sodium, the daily value is 7% either way.)
Sodium might be worth keeping an eye on, since eating too much of it over a long period of time could affect your heart. Here's a general rule of thumb you can use, says Barbie Boules, RDN, LDN, CHC, founder of Barbie Boules Longevity Nutrition: If a label says that a food has 6% (140 milligrams) sodium or less, that's a "low" amount. Meanwhile 16% (400 milligrams) or less is considered moderate. More than that, and you're getting into "high" territory.
Under "total sugars" on nutrition labels, manufacturers are now required to call out the amount of added sugar in the food.
“I'm glad about this change,” Boules says. “When you consume naturally occurring sugars it means you're consuming the ‘whole’ food. When we eat whole foods we're getting an abundance of other nutrients: vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, hydration, fiber. It's silly to think about the sugar in fruit unless you have an illness or disorder that prevents proper metabolism or digestion of carbs," she explains. "Added sugar is where we can get into trouble, because, like sodium in packaged and restaurant foods, it can be excessive.”
A healthy jarred pasta sauce might have several grams of total sugar — that's nothing to worry about, because it comes from the tomatoes. But some manufacturers toss in regular sugar as well, to sweeten the final product. Thanks to the new guidelines, you'll be able to easily spot that extra hit.
On the new labels, the number of calories is displayed in a larger font. “I’m really not digging this,” Boules says. “It perpetuates the idea that calories are the most important factor in food choice, and it's simply untrue… I guide my clients to ignore calories in favor of serving size and nutrient-density.”
Other experts agree that the emphasis on calories is misguided (not to mention downright dangerous for those with eating disorders). “Five hundred calories of soda has a much different impact on hunger hormones, blood sugar, energy, and fat storage than 500 calories of Brussels sprouts,” says Sarah Thomsen Ferreira, RD, IFNCP, manager of clinical nutrition at the center for functional medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “Even with the same number of calories, then, there can be a huge difference in the way that our bodies respond to our calories and in how much we want to eat.”
The new labels also ditch a row that previously explained how many calories are from fat. The reason: Research shows that the “type of fat” is more important to health than the amount.
This bit of information, as well as “servings per container,” also gets a larger font under the new guidelines. And the FDA is instructing food manufacturers to make serving size figures reflect how Americans really eat.
In the past, for example, a label might have told you the nutritional information for one fourth of a chocolate chip cookie — the "serving size," even though no one really buys a cookie to eat a quarter of it. Now, they’ll include the data for the whole baked good.
Potassium and Vitamin D
The FDA stopped including information for vitamins A and C, in favor of potassium and vitamin D. That's because the average American tends to get enough of the former, but not of the latter, explains Meredith Price, MS, RD, CDN, a nutritionist and founder of Priceless Nutrition and Wellness. The change is likely meant to help draw our attention to these nutrients, making it easier to ensure we're getting enough.
“Potassium is the counterpart to sodium in that it helps balance blood pressure,” she says. “Since most Americans get too much sodium in the diet, it's important to balance it out with potassium, which is mostly found in fruits and vegetables — another area that most Americans are low in when it comes to their diets.”
Studies have shown that vitamin D helps fight diseases and plays a role in regulating mood, according to Healthline. It's found in food, and the body produces it when our skin is exposed to UV rays. Obviously, tanning isn't a great solution — but despite the FDA's label change, dietary sources might not be the answer either.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, RDN, the lead dietitian and manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine, says she typically recommends supplementing with D3 for people who are falling short. "Rarely will I say that a supplement is better than food, but with Vitamin D, food alone won’t bump up your levels high enough."
The bottom line: Should you even worry about nutrition labels?
Boules emphasizes that it’s not a great idea to put too much weight into reading labels. “It should be one of many data points in choosing what you want to eat,” she says. “Or you can ignore it entirely, that's fine too. Labels are helpful in creating awareness, not designing your overall food philosophy.”