Fifty years ago, you were pretty much on your own when it came to knowing nutrition facts, such as sugar and sodium content, about your packaged foods. The food labels we know and love/hate today didn’t even exist until 1974, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) started a voluntary food labeling.
In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which required packaged foods include information about their nutrient levels—particularly fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar—and thus, the official Nutrition Facts label was born.
The Nutrition Facts label was created to protect consumers from misleading products, and guide us through what’s in a food, much like the table of contents of a book—but still, almost half of Americans don’t even look at these labels, let alone understand them. (As a dietitian, this struggle is near and dear to my heart; I even wrote a book about it.)
If you’re one of those people, it’s time to perk up: A new Nutrition Facts label is coming! In response to consumers’ demands for more transparency from food companies and recent research that’s identified a need to change our approach to certain nutrients, like sugars and fats, the FDA announced related label changes in 2016. And finally, after a number of delays, you’ll see these new-and-improved food labels everywhere in January 2020 (though some proactive companies have already made the switch).
Here are six important updates to look out for:
Calories are already the most talked about part of the Nutrition Facts label, and they’re about to become even harder to ignore. A food’s calories will now appear in bold (a neon sign around them wouldn’t fit!) to emphasize how many calories a serving contains. Plus, if a food package is a size someone could reasonably down in one sitting (even if it’s more than one serving), the label will list the number of calories in the package.
2. Calories from Fat
As we slowly but surely put our fat phobia to rest, the new Nutrition Facts label will no longer include ‘Calories from Fat.’ For decades, seeing a higher number of calories from fat in a food turned us off to a food, even if those fats came from healthy sources like avocado, olive oil, or nuts.
‘Total fat,’ ‘saturated fat,’ and ‘trans fat’ will all still be required on food labels, so you can identify where a food’s fat is coming from. This way, you’re less likely to shun a healthy higher-fat food, but still able to weed out those that contain more questionable fats.
3. Serving Size
The number of calories listed on a food doesn’t mean much if we don’t know what the proper serving size is—and many of us end up underestimating our calorie consumption because we end up eating more than one serving but don’t double or triple the calories accordingly.
To address this, labels will list servings that are more realistic to how much of the package people actually eat. For example, a large cookie will list the nutritional information for the entire cookie, instead of half the cookie. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should finish the whole thing in one swoop, but it does provide you with a clearer picture of your potential calorie intake.
Food products on store shelves contain one (or both) of two kinds of sugar: natural sugar and added sugar. While the natural sugars found in foods like milk and fruit fit into a healthy diet, sugars added to foods like breads, yogurts, and dressings by the manufacturers can be a problem in excess. Americans take in more than 77 pounds of added sugar each year, and diets high in sugar have been linked to conditions like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and more.
Our current food labels don’t differentiate between the natural and added sugars in foods, so you have to comb through the ingredients list to determine whether a food contains added sugar. And that’s no easy task considering sugar has so many aliases (e.g. maltose, cane juice, brown rice syrup).
The new food labels will call out how much added sugar a food contains. Plus, since The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that no more than 10 percent of total daily calories should come from added sugars, the new labels will also list what percentage of your Daily Value (the allowed daily intake of a nutrient on a 2,000-calorie diet), which is 50 grams for added sugar, a food contains. A general rule of thumb: Twenty percent or more of your Daily Value for a nutrient per serving is considered high, while five percent or less is low.
5. New Nutrients
We’re used to seeing the Daily Value percentage for certain micronutrients, like vitamin C, listed on Nutrition Facts labels—and a couple new nutrients are about to join the party. Labels will now include Daily Value percentages for vitamin D and potassium, because so few Americans meet their daily needs. Labels will also no longer be required to include vitamins A and C, since deficiencies in those vitamins are so rare today.
Use this infographic to keep your nutrition facts straight:
Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label To Table.