Big news in the nutritional world! The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released the first update to the standards of mandated nutrition labels in 20 years.

They haven’t reinvented it entirely—the basic layout of the well known black and white bar columns will remain the same. However, the decisions made on whether to include or exclude certain nutritional items, as well as updates to larger concepts like serving sizes, reflect hotly contested alterations that should help the average consumer become more aware of the real nutritional value of their food.

Here are the big changes you need to know about:

  1. Serving sizes have been updated to reflect amounts that people are actually eating.

Have you ever actually measured out your half cup of ice cream when you decide it is time to treat yo’self? Probably not. And the average consumer doesn’t either- if you are anything like me, the serving size would more accurately be represented as the entire pint.

The same goes for products like bottled smoothies. A lot of them currently list the serving size as only half the bottle; the label will now more realistically reflect the calories for the entire bottled smoothie. Let’s be real: no one buys a Naked juice, drinks half, and puts the rest away.

This change could be a welcome wake-up call for those who haven’t read labels closely enough to notice that their favorite snack is, in fact, packaged in multiple servings. The calories listed on these snacks’ packages may jump dramatically overnight. If the container is deemed to be large enough for more than one serving, the packaging will now have to include nutritional labels for both one serving and the entire package.

On top of these changes, “calories”, “serving sizes”, and “servings per container” will be highlighted in bigger, bolded font. Ideally, these changes will help consumers more accurately understand the caloric and nutritional content of their food.

For those counting macronutrients, calories, or other aspects of nutritional intake, this change will remove the tedious step of multiplying the listed amounts to reflect a different serving than the one currently presented on the label. However, just because the serving size now reflects what a person is likely to eat in one sitting, that doesn’t mean you should be eating the entire serving. Two-thirds of a cup of ice cream (the new listed serving size), though perhaps a more realistic portion, is still going to contain more calories, sugar, and saturated fat than what was originally found in the half cup serving size. The FDA is careful to warn that the increased serving size may not be recommended nutritionally.

  1. They’ve added updates to the nutrients listed.

Sodium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D recommendations are now changing based on developing nutritional research. That’s a decrease in recommended sodium and an increase in dietary fiber and vitamin D recommendations, respectively. The ubiquitous daily percentages of vitamins A and vitamin C previously displayed on labels will be replaced with amounts of vitamin D and potassium (also known as vitamin K).

These changes represent an increase in knowledge about deficiencies; very few people are deficient in vitamins A or C, as these two vitamins are readily available in many foods, while D and K deficiencies are much more common.

Why up the intake of these vitamins? Vitamin D is important for building good bone density and mood regulation, especially in women (we lose it when we get our period). Vitamin K is important for regular brain, muscle, and heart functioning, and is less commonly found in daily foods. Iron and calcium content will both still be listed, similarly to the old label, as deficiencies in these nutrients are still common. The values will now be given in both grams and % daily value for ease of reading.

Of course, these are only the minimum requirements. If a company wants to do more and specify the amounts of other vitamins or minerals in addition to the bare minimum, they can. Many health foods include more than the required nutritional information. This might be done in order to help convince consumers that their product is healthier, and therefore the better purchase. In any case, these baseline changes should help consumers to pay attention to important vitamins and minerals they may have been missing. Yay for stronger, better functioning bodies!

  1. The focus has switched from fat to sugar.

Finally, the era of obsession over “Fat Free” is over! No longer will “calories from fat” be specifically listed on the label. The daily percentage of fat will remain, as will the break down for “saturated fat”, “trans fat“ and “total fat” grams. But that makes sense—fat is now listed in same way as other macronutrients, like protein for example.

This removal reflects the changing nutritional rhetoric: fat is no longer something to be specifically avoided and is now touted as an important part of a healthy diet. (YAY AVOCADOS)

The health benefits of fats still rely on the type of fat you’re eating, and trans fat specifically should still be avoided like the plague. The mono- and poly- unsaturated kinds, on the other hand, are important for brain, hair, skin and muscle growth—something that packages now often proudly boast. Ever heard of omega-3’s? They’re a great example of a popularized healthy fat companies have been raving about.

Replacing the criticism of fat is a deserved highlight on added sugars. Ever wonder why the previous label has daily-recommended intake percentages listed for fat (even the separate types of fat), protein, and carbohydrates, but not for sugar?

This exclusion used to be intentionally kept by the sugar industry, which lobbied hard and relied on the fact that there had been relatively few studies on sugar consumption and its relation to our health. Not so much anymore. Not only will the percentage daily value of sugar in the product now be specifically stated, but manufacturers are also required to state the specific amount of added sugars in their product.

What does that mean? There will be a separate row, underneath the total sugars row, that will say “Includes Xg added sugars” and the specific percentage of the daily amount of added sugar that those grams make up. Added sugars include any sugars that are not naturally occurring in the food, and have been added in during processing.

Added sugar comes in many forms, with names ranging from “sucrose” to “high fructose corn syrup” to “malt syrup”. The addition of this specification on the label is meant to increase transparency for a consumer who may not be able to discern which sugars come strictly from processing, versus sugars existing the food itself (like naturally occurring lactose sugar in milk).

This change is based on research that indicates that no more than 10% of your daily calories should come from added sugars. It is thought that exceeding that amount means you won’t be able to stay within calorie recommendations while also getting enough of the other nutrients your body needs (think vitamins, dietary fiber, protein) to function well. This is a controversial move—the fact that the FDA has finally opted to include these values shows that the research backing the detrimental effects of added sugar has become something the FDA can no longer ignore in good conscience.

So if you’ve been wondering if that delicious bottled smoothie is really being sweetened with just fruit, now you’ll know with a quick glance. Yay for transparency!

What does this all mean? Will these changes result in a healthier America?

The honest answer? I don’t know. Changing certain things on the label—most specifically, adding the clarifying sugar amounts and changing the focus to vitamins people are more likely to be deficient in—are certainly positive updates that reflect a greater depth of nutritional knowledge. Ideally, these changes, along with the increased size of the font on the total calories and the more realistic serving sizes, will help the average consumer to be more aware of their total nutritional intake. Forcing companies to adopt these new labels increases the transparency of how food is being processed and prepared—something that will hopefully result in a shift to fewer added sugars and more nutrients included as consumers shift their purchasing habits accordingly.

However, implicit in these changes is the assumption that people a) read nutritional labels when making choices and b) understand how what they are reading will impact their overall health. I would go so far as to argue that these assumptions are what is wrong with our nutritional education in America. We operate on a free-market policy that consumers will make their own educated choices when it comes to nutrition. But this assumes that when it comes to nutrition, consumers know what they’re doing. I’m not saying that we should be policed about our food consumption or forced to only eat certain things because they are “healthy” for us, but rather that consumers could be better informed about how to make those choices for themselves.

It’s great that we are changing nutritional labels for the better. But it’s not enough; now it’s time to change health classes to teach us, in detail, about how to read these labels and apply the knowledge to our health. Of course, the FDA isn’t responsible for health education standards. What they have done to the labels is basically as much as they can do right now in terms of public health education. It’s time for consumers to push on our school systems to increase our own education level as well—but that is an argument for a different post.




About The Author

Karin Lee is going into her fourth, and final, year at Northeastern. She’s studying Human Services, with a concentration in Eating Disorders and Nutrition and a minor in Psychology. When she isn’t waitressing at a sports bar she in she likes running, binge watching Netflix, and exploring Boston with friends.

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