Nutrition labels get a long-awaited makeover

food labels

The FDA’s proposed changes — the first in 20 years — focus on calories, sugar, and portion sizes, not fat.

For the first time in two decades, nutrition labels on food packages are going to get a makeover, focusing on sugar, calories, and portions rather than fat.

The proposed update, unveiled today by the Obama administration and Food and Drug Administration officials, is an effort to simplify the ubiquitous black-and-white Nutrition Facts panel and could have a significant impact on what Americans eat and drink for years to come.

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“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” First Lady Michelle Obama, a staunch advocate of childhood health issues, said in a statement.

food labels

New nutrition labels would highlight calories, servings, and added sugars in a food or drink. (FDA)

The update includes several changes to the current label, which was introduced in 1993 and now appears on roughly 700,000 products. At the heart of the changes is an emphasis on serving size and calories per serving, which will be prominently listed in boldface and a larger font size.

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Additionally, the actual serving size of some foods will change. One serving of ice cream will change from one-half cup to one cup. A bottle of soda, whether it’s 12 ounces or 20, will be considered a single serving.

These changes are designed to reflect how much people actually consume, which is often more than they think.

“Some muffins, for example, list 1/2 serving,” said Kathie Swift, an integrative clinical nutritionist and director of the Food as Medicine nutrition-training program, in a recent interview with Experience Life. “Now, who eats 1/2 of a muffin?”

serving sizes

Serving sizes of some foods will change to reflect the reality that Americans eat more today than they did 20 years ago. (FDA)

The FDA notes that the revised serving sizes are not recommendations for healthy or appropriate consumption.

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Sugar, a subset of the carbohydrate section of the label, would also get special attention: The new labels would specify how much “added sugar” a product contains. According to the FDA, Americans obtain 16 percent of their daily calories from sugars added during food production.

The “calories from fat” line on the label will also be eliminated. Saturated fat and trans fat amounts will continue to be displayed on the label. (While the FDA continues to warn against consuming saturated fat, new research has weakened the perceived link between saturated fat and heart disease.)

These changes highlight concerns of overeating among Americans and reflect a departure from the focus on fat, which was long demonized as the culprit in the obesity epidemic.

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Advances in nutritional science have since shown that sweeteners, found in everything from soda and candy to sandwiches and salad dressings, are likely to blame for many of the nation’s health woes. Sugar consumption has been linked to diabetesobesity, and heart disease.

surprising sources of sugar

Sugar content of some common commercial products. (Experience Life, January/February 2014)

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Other changes to the label include updates to the recommended daily values for various nutrients; the actual amount of nutrients in the food, in micrograms; and the addition of vitamin D and potassium.

“We have evidence that people are not consuming enough of these nutrients to protect against chronic diseases,” said Jessica Leighton, the FDA’s senior nutrition science and policy advisor.

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The proposed updates are set to be unveiled today and face a 90-day public comment window. (To read and comment on the proposal, visit www.regulations.gov.) The food industry would have two years to comply with the new standards, meaning it could be some time before the new labels hit store shelves.

Tell us: Are the nutrition labeling changes an improvement? Share your thoughts in the comments below or via Twitter @ExperienceLife. 

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