Nutrition labelsA couple of weeks ago, Michelle Obama presented the new FDA food label at the Partnership for a Healthier America conference, on behalf of the Let’s Move! program. The food label was first introduced in 1991, and other than the addition of trans fat in 2006, the label really hasn’t changed in the last 25 years. Needless to say, it was ready for a facelift. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the old vs new labels.

What Changed? Why Should I Care?

  • More emphasis on serving size and the number of servings in each package. I give this two thumbs up! However, the serving size also has to reflect what someone will actually eat and I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I think this is good because most of us don’t drink half a bottle of a beverage, despite labels that often list “2 servings/bottle.” Now, the calories will more closely reflect what we actually consume.
    On the other hand, what is listed on a package does not necessarily correspond to how the USDA defines serving sizes of given food groups (most packaged foods will list larger serving sizes). What these changes mean is that 12 oz. and 20 oz. bottles of soda will both equal one serving size because people will drink the entire bottle, no matter the size. It also seems to validate the idea that an enormous serving of candy, soda, or chips is a reasonable amount to consume.
  • Calories are listed in BIG, BOLD FONT. Because, calories matter! Critics argue that we shouldn’t be focusing so much on the calorie content of foods, and instead on the quality of those calories (i.e. eating nuts instead of low-fat crackers, despite the nuts being more energy dense). But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Calories can play a more prominent role on the label AND the quality of the food can be considered. The new label fosters the ability to do both.
  • “Calories from fat” are no longer listed. This is due to the large body of evidence demonstrating that total dietary fat intake does not a bad diet make.
  • New line to show the amount of added sugars. Before now, you weren’t able to tell how much sugar was added by the manufacturer versus how much sugar naturally occurred in the food (mostly from fruit and dairy). Now, you’ll know both grams and the percent daily value of added sugar (the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10% of total calories come from added sugar). Like the serving size issue, this is a double-edged sword. While it is likely very good that people will have this information and will make demands on the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar they unnecessarily add to foods, it is also true that your body doesn’t metabolize natural sugars from fruit any differently than from sugarcane. And food companies will exploit this, to be sure. They may add apple juice or fruit nectar to foods in order to sweeten them “naturally” in order circumvent this rule. So that’s something new you’ll have to check for on the ingredients’ list. But this didn’t stop food companies from getting all in a tizzy about the new sugar rules, because now they have to do additional work to reformulate their products to either make them healthier (unfortunately, not likely) or to just look healthier (more likely).
  • Quantities and not just percentages of micronutrients will now be listed. This probably matters most to nutrition nerds, but it also means that you can see the actual value of the micronutrients, much like with the macronutrients (fat, carbs, protein).

When Will My Food Be Covered in It?Food manufacturers will have to use the new food labels by July 26, 2018. Hopefully most will start incorporating them on food products much sooner than that.

Does Any of This Matter?
Not sure. Cynics argue that this only matters for the affluent and nutrition conscious groups, people whose diets don’t need as much attention, while not really changing anything for lower-income folks. And this new label probably won’t change anything for the millions of people who already ignore them. We don’t have evidence that points one way or the other, but this is likely a step in the right direction as it will likely lead to reformulation of some products and may make people more cognizant of certain facets of the food they eat. Transparency is also important and the new label is easier to read and understand than the old one. Plain and simple.

Marion Nestle, PhD, Professor at NYU and nutrition and public health extraordinaire, said it best, so I’ll leave you with some food for thought from her:

“I see the new label as a political win for public health and Let’s Move! But let’s keep this in perspective. Healthful diets are based on foods, not food products. We would all be healthier eating foods that do not come with Nutrition Facts panels, and saving most of those that do for once-in-a-while occasions.”