Health, with a Grain of Salt

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Big Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label

Did you hear?? The biggest news in nutrition policy in two decades?? The new Nutrition Facts Label is here!! (I’ll wait while you compose yourself after all the cheering, celebrating, and champagne popping…)

Last week, 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.

NFL Side by SideWhat Changed? Why Should I care?

  • More emphasis on serving size and the number of servings in each package. Two thumbs up. The serving size also has to reflect what someone will actually eat. 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). In the 170 page document explaining the changes to the label regarding serving sizes, the FDA acknowledges that “portion sizes have changed since we first published serving size regulations in 1993.” 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. This seems like it may confuse some people with regard to how much of a food they should consume, but maybe I’m overthinking it.
  • Calories are listed in BIG, BOLD FONT. Because calories matter.
  • “Calories from fat” are no longer listed due to the large body of evidence demonstrating that total dietary fat intake does not a bad diet make.
  • The change everyone is talking about: added sugars. Before now, you weren’t able to tell how much sugar was added by the manufacturer vs 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). As you may have guessed, food companies got all in a tizzy about this because they add way too much sugar and now they can’t hide it anymore. Bummer for them, yay for you.
  • Quantities and not just percentages of micronutrients will now be listed. This probably matters most to nutrition nerds like myself, 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.

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 I think this is a step in the right direction as it will likely lead to reformulation of some products (particularly those high in added sugars). 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.”


dietary guidelines for americansFDAnutritionnutrition facts labelnutrition policypublic health

caitlindowphd • May 25, 2016

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