First lady Michelle Obama on Friday unveiled the much-anticipated overhaul of the nutrition labels you see on every packaged product at the grocery store, and it looks a lot like the old one — at least superficially.
The new label still retains the minimalist black-and-white, two-column look that designers have praised over the years, and it highlights many of the same categories, such as cholesterol and sodium. But this is where it might get confusing: Even though it doesn’t look all that different, some categories are now emphasized more than others, and the way some numbers are calculated has changed.
These are critical updates that highlight the breakthroughs in nutrition science and upheavals in our country’s disease burden over the years. Many of the changes represent losses for the food industry, which fought hard against updates because they essentially put some of the blame for our poor health on added sugars, eating overly large quantities of servings and consuming too many calories.
So it’s important that you read on to learn more about how it all works.
“The intention is not to tell consumers what to eat, but rather to make sure they have the tools and accurate information they need to choose foods that are right for themselves and their families,” Susan Mayne, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a conference call with reporters.
The first lady joked while announcing the changes at a health summit early Friday that “very soon you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.”
Experts predict that the new labeling guidelines may lead to major reformulations of some of the 800,000 products that currently carry the labels. More than 77 percent of Americans have said in surveys that they use the nutrition facts label when shopping, and companies worry that some of their products may appear less appealing under the new rules.
Those changes could end up costing the industry many millions. While reducing things like added sugars may sound simple, it actually requires a time-consuming and complex science. Your morning cereal, for example, could turn to dust in your bowl if the mix of ingredients isn’t just right. Or if you want to increase the amount of whole grains in a product, you may have to add more sugar to offset the bitterness of the new taste.
“Reformulating a product is not easy. There are all sorts properties that food scientists have to pay attention to, and one of those physical properties when it comes to sugar and salt is that they tend to hold things together,” said William Dietz, who researches obesity, nutrition and physical fitness at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.
Then there’s the issue that some Americans equate something that’s healthier with something that’s less tasty.
Kraft recently revealed that it had reduced the sodium in its macaroni and cheese without telling consumers until the product had already been out for months, for fear of alienating fans of its original product.
The Nutrition Facts label was introduced more than 20 years ago by the government with the goal of helping consumers eat more healthfully. The FDA has been working to update the tag, which is put on almost all packaged foods, for more than two years. Americans will start seeing the new label soon because most manufacturers will be required to have theirs in place by July 26, 2018. (Those with annual food sales of less than $10 million will have another year to comply.)
Government standards for labeling of what Americans eat have extremely high stakes and can potentially boost sales of certain types of foods while tanking sales of others. When the FDA first announced several years ago that it wanted to revise the system, there was a huge debate over its content and design. Everyone, including consumers, scientists and food lobbyists, got involved.
Here’s a look at some key changes:
- Serving sizes. This is perhaps the most important and controversial update and one that has not been changed in 20 years. The serving sizes now reflect what people currently eat — rather than whatever the companies decide seems reasonable. So serving sizes that were equivalent to only a few chips might now reflect the whole package. This change is consistent with the new Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, but there has been a lot of concern that people will take the serving sizes — which as a whole will be much larger than in the past — as recommendations rather than descriptions. In a study published in the journal Appetite, researchers argued that this change will not make Americans eat healthier but make them eat more and get fatter. FDA officials have said they disagree with that point of view and emphasized that serving sizes for some foods — like yogurt — will actually go down.
- Calories. The total count is now highlighted in huge letters rather than being in the same type size as the other nutrition information. This change, FDA officials have said, reflects the country’s growing obesity epidemic.
- Added sugars. This completely new category is important given recent updates to the dietary guidelines urging Americans to cut down on sugars that come from processed foods such as cakes and cookies. Added sugars are measured in both grams and as a percent daily value. The sugar industry has said that this emphasis on added sugars is not scientifically justifiable, but the FDA disagrees. “For the past decade experts have advised consumers to reduce their intake of added sugars because they contribute empty calories to the diet without providing any additional nutritional benefits,” the FDA’s Mayne said. This change will allow consumers to tell the difference between sugars added during processing versus sugars that come naturally, such as in fresh fruits and dairy, she added.
- Multi-serving products. For some food products that could be consumed in multiple sittings — or in one single swoop if you really have the munchies — there will now be two columns to indicate the per-serving and per-package calorie and nutrition information that will save you from doing some math. This will include items like that pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
- Odd-sized packages. Packages or containers that are between one and two servings — such as 20-ounce bottles of sodas — will now be labeled as one serving.
- Sodium and dietary fiber. The percent daily values for sodium, dietary fiber and vitamin D will change for many foods based on the new 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Institute of Medicine recommendations. Be aware that this doesn’t mean the manufacturer has changed the recipe of your favorite food, just that the new recommendations either increase or decrease the amount you need to eat. More specifically, previous recommendations allowed Americans to eat up to 25 grams of fiber day. The new recommendations call for up to 28 grams a day. So if a food contains 5 grams of fiber, the old label would have listed 20 for the percent daily value. The new label would have 18 percent for the percent daily value. For sodium, the percent daily value used to be based on a maximum of 2,400 mg of sodium a day and will now be based on 2,300 mg a day.
- Vitamin D and potassium. In the past, labels only had the percent daily values for vitamin D and potassium, but they’ll now also show the gram amount. “These are nutrients that some people are not getting enough of, which puts them at higher risk for chronic disease,” the FDA said in a statement.
- Vitamins A and C. These will no longer be required on labels, since deficiencies of these vitamins are rare nowadays.
- Fat. Based on research that shows the type of fat is more important than the amount, the “Calories from Fat” line will disappear. However, “Total Fat,” and the subcategories “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” will still be required.
- Percent Daily Value. The explanation of what this is continues to appear at the bottom of the label and is still based on a 2,000 calorie diet, but it is more streamlined.
This post has been updated.