Written by SMH Copywriter Phil Lederer
Have you noticed that something seems a little off about food nutrition labels these days? You’re not wrong. That familiar nutritional label received something of a consumer-focused overhaul recently.
In 2016, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) passed a law mandating updates to the standard nutritional facts label, and by 2020, the vast majority of industries and products are expected to be in compliance.
Here’s a quick look at what’s new and what’s changed.
Calories Are King
The most obvious difference you’ll notice at first glance is that the “calorie count per serving” is now more prominent; it’s big and bold, and grabs the eye as you scan. It’s also the easiest way to figure out whether the label you’re looking at is the new and approved label, or a holdout that may not be in compliance.
Calories aren’t everything, but making the calorie count impossible to miss goes a long way in helping consumers keep track of their calorie intake.
Still, dietitians are quick to remind us that not everyone will have the same dietary and caloric needs, so be sure to talk with your doctor about your optimal intake, before drastically reducing or increasing caloric consumption.
A Serving of Reality
One of the most substantial changes to the nutrition label comes in a reformulation of what “serving size” means.
Previously, serving sizes were largely prescriptive — telling consumers what an optimal serving would be from the manufacturer’s point of view, which could be determined more by appearance than actual nutrition or behavior.
Under the new guidelines, serving sizes are now descriptive, meaning they more accurately reflect consumer behavior, giving shoppers a more realistic expectation.
For example, by the previous formulation, a 20-ounce bottle of soda from a vending machine was technically more than one serving. But behaviorally, consumers typically drink the whole bottle as a single serving. So, a quick glance at the nutritional information on the side of the bottle did not actually tell the buyer how many calories, sugars or fats they were ingesting — unless they read the fine print and did the math.
Now, when it comes to packages that are intuitively known to be single-serving, the nutritional information must take that into account and report the contents as a single serving.
“They changed the serving size to reflect what people are actually eating,” explained Emily Harren, MS, RD, an outpatient dietitian at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. And while these two changes might be the most obvious — and the most useful for counting calories and tracking weight loss — they aren’t the only changes that have Harren excited for her patients.
Note: Some packaging may comply by including two labels—one for the entire single-serving container and another for the manufacturer’s determined serving size.
Sweeten the Deal
One of the biggest changes — and one that has dietitians like Harren celebrating — is a change-up in how the nutrition label explains sugar content. The new guidelines make it very clear just how much extra sugar has been added to the product.
Old-style nutrition labels only had to document the total amount of sugar (in grams) contained in a serving. This left the consumer in the dark as to how much extra sugar they were ingesting, and — absent any specialized knowledge —at a severe disadvantage when trying to shop healthy.
How many consumers know whether a piece of dried fruit should have 15 grams of sugar or 5 grams?
The new label makes it clear how much sugar has been added to the product, allowing consumers to make healthier choices, and cut back on extra sugars. “I’m less concerned about sugar from a natural source than I am about added sugar,” Harren said. “I’m going to try to get that as low as possible.”
Concerning Those Nutrients
Some manufacturers like to fill nutrition labels with the many nutrients and vitamins that can be found in a product, but by law, they are only required to list a select few, dubbed “nutrients of concern.”
These are nutrients that have been flagged by health professionals and regulators as either lacking in the common diet or difficult to get without conscious effort. The new guidelines have also updated what nutrients are included under that umbrella and required to be reported on the label.
Before the update, vitamins A and C were the nutrients of concern, but strides in dietary education resulted in them being removed from the classification. In their stead, the new nutrients of concern have been identified as Vitamin D and Potassium.
In addition to bananas, baked potatoes and avocados are good sources of potassium, Harren said, but Vitamin D can be much more difficult to get through diet.
“It’s pretty difficult to get to the recommended amount,” she said. “Most people end up supplementing.” Some milks and juices are fortified with Vitamin D, and getting sunlight helps.
Together with mandatory reporting of added sugars, this update gives health-conscious consumers and dietitians both a leg up on eating smart. “Those are the changes that I highlight,” Harren said. “I love those two updates.”
Trim the Fat
Total Fat, Saturated Fat and Trans Fat amounts are all still listed on the new label, but “Calories from Fat” is no longer listed next to the total calorie count. In this case, the change is to remove extraneous information that may cloud decision-making.
“They want you to look at types of fat,” Harren said, noting that keeping track of saturated fats is important for cholesterol monitoring — and in a healthy diet, trans fats should be avoided altogether. But, she said, precisely how many calories come from fat doesn’t need to be the focus; however, she still recommends limiting total fat intake for most people.
It took years to determine that the nutritional label needed to be updated, years more to agree on new guidelines and years after that to implement the changes across the market. But medical professionals are already looking to what’s next and what can be improved.
“It would be nice to see more nutrients listed,” Harren said. “Just tell me what’s in there.”
As a Sarasota Memorial copywriter, local journalist and in-house wordsmith Philip Lederer, MA, crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. He earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, Ky.