For three decades, the Nutrition Fact Panel on the food label has provided a nutritional snapshot of the food inside a package. By law, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration dictates that the label must list not only the calories, but also other important nutrient information, such as the amount of heart-unhealthy saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium per serving.
With more than half of all adults currently having one or more preventable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity – all related to unhealthy diets and physical inactivity – the Food and Drug Administration decided that the label needed a makeover. The FDA updated the Nutrition Facts label requirements in 2016, and food manufacturers began implementing the requirements in 2020 and 2021.
The majority of Americans use the Nutrition Facts label to guide their food choices. According to an FDA survey, 87% of U.S. adults have looked at the Nutrition Facts panel.
The top four factors that consumers consider when making food choices are:
- Total sugar.
- Serving size.
(Courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration)
The New Serving Sizes
Have you ever measured a half-cup of ice cream? It sure isn’t much, but that’s the amount that was previously used as a serving size on the Nutrition Facts label. The FDA has now changed the serving size of ice cream to two-thirds of a cup. On the new labels, the serving sizes represent the amount that a person is actually likely to eat or drink rather than what they should consume. For example, because a can of soda is 12 ounces, the Nutrition Facts label must contain the nutrient information for this amount, rather than the eight-ounce serving size that was referenced before.
The FDA offers tips regarding the new serving sizes. The serving size, again, is not a recommendation of how much to eat or drink, but how much the average person is likely to eat. So, if you’re trying to lose weight or eat healthfully for other reasons, sticking to a half-serving of ice cream is prudent.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that a package of food might still contain more than one serving. Some food packages will have two columns: one listing the amount of calories and nutrients in one serving and the other detailing the amount in the entire package.
The serving size is also in bold, easy-to-read print that will catch your eye at the grocery store.
(Courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration)
You Can’t Miss the Calories
Speaking of calories, you won’t be able to ignore them – they are now in huge print on every Nutrition Facts label. Regardless of what you may want to believe, calories do still matter for both weight and overall health. Even among individuals at what is considered to be a healthy weight, cutting calories slightly (about 300 calories a day) improves health parameters such as blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and measures of inflammation, insulin resistance and glucose control.
Ann Silver, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in private practice in the Hamptons on Long Island, says that rather than asking people to count calories, she encourages them to be more in touch with their internal cues for hunger – eating when they’re hungry, stopping when they’re satisfied and, especially if they’re sedentary after dinner, emphasizing non-starchy vegetables at the evening meal. For these reasons, she’s not sure that the huge, bold calorie count on every label is that helpful. Instead, she’d love to see saturated fat or fiber in bigger and bolder print.
Her focus is on a non-diet approach, and she categorizes foods into “always foods and sometimes foods.” Her clients have permission to eat everything, but there are some things that no one should eat at every single meal or every day. This is how we teach children to eat but diet culture has eliminated this balanced way of eating for many adults.
Daily Values on Nutrition Facts
The National Institutes of Health recommends that a middle-aged, moderately active female consumes 2,000 calories per day, and a middle-aged moderately active male should aim for 2,400 to 2,600 calories. To make things easy and consistent, 2,000 calories a day is the standard used for general nutrition advice and is what the daily values on nutrition facts labels are based upon.
Although “a total intake of 2,000 calories a day is used as a general guide for nutrition advice, individual calorie needs may be higher or lower and vary depending on age, sex, and physical activity level,” according to Joy Dubost, a scientist and registered dietitian in St. Petersburg, Florida. She recommends referring to the Food and Drug Administration’s handout to help determine your individual caloric needs.
She also reminds people to “keep in mind comparing caloric values is helpful but also review the rest of the nutrition information including nutrients like calcium, fiber, potassium and vitamin D to ensure the calories you’re consuming also provide critical nutrients to your diet. The percent daily value (%DV) shows how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a total daily diet.”
According to some research, the average American is now consuming 285 calories worth of added sugar each day, which is the equivalent of 19 teaspoons. The recommendation is no more than 100 calories, or six teaspoons of added sugar for women each day and 150 calories or nine teaspoons for men. Consider that a single piece of black-out cake at the Cheesecake Factory contains 33 teaspoons of sugar, and you can see why Americans have a real problem with the sweet stuff.
Although nearly three-quarters of Americans say that they are trying to reduce their sugar intake, it’s evident that we are losing the battle. Research shows that an excessive amount of added sugars in the diet increases the risk of developing heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hormone imbalances, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, gout, Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Natural vs. added sugar
The 12 grams of natural sugars in a cup of milk in the form of lactose or the 19 grams of fructose in a medium apple are not cause for alarm. The sugar that experts recommend we limit to 100 to 150 calories a day is called added sugar.
“Added sugars include sugars that are added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices,” explains Dubost. “They do not include naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk, fruits and vegetables.”
Until the label changed, though, it was challenging to discern what sugars in food were naturally occurring and which were added. The new labels take care of that problem by clearly delineating total sugars from added sugars.
Vitamins A and C Aren’t Much of a Concern These Days
Because deficiencies of Vitamins A and C are rare these days, their inclusion on the updated Nutrition Facts label is strictly voluntary. Vitamin A can be found in many fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens, carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, winter squash, tomatoes, bell peppers and cantaloupe. You can also find this nutrient in fish oil, milk, eggs and a wide variety of fortified foods. The best sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, white potatoes and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli.
Vitamin D and Potassium Are a Health Concern
The vast majority of Americans don’t get enough of these critically important nutrients. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “Calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D are considered dietary components of public health concern for the general U.S. population because low intakes are associated with health concerns.” Although calcium and fiber were always listed on the nutrition facts label, vitamin D and potassium are new additions.
Vitamin D is integral to bone health and muscle strength and may also play a role in the prevention of cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. The best sources of vitamin D are fatty fish, although lesser amounts are found in egg yolks, cheese, beef liver and certain mushrooms. Many foods and supplements are also fortified with vitamin D nowadays.
Potassium is an essential mineral and an electrolyte, which helps to maintain body fluid, supports normal blood pressure and plays an important role in muscle contraction. Rich sources of potassium include dried fruits, beans, lentils, potatoes, winter squash, leafy greens, avocado, bananas, cantaloupe and oranges. Other than fruits and vegetables, you can find potassium in chicken, salmon, dairy products, cashews and almonds.
Updated Daily Values
The Daily Values (DV) for nutrients on the Nutrition Facts label have also been updated to illustrate the latest research. For example, the DV for fiber, calcium and magnesium have increased, while those for sodium and carbohydrate have decreased.
A food with a DV of 5% or less of a nutrient is considered to have a low amount. You want a low DV for saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. A 20% DV or more of a nutrient is considered high. You want to choose foods with a high DV of dietary fiber, vitamin D, magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium.
It’s Not the Amount of Fat, but the Type
Because the most recent research indicates that the type of fats that we consume matters more than the amount, the calories from fat have been removed from the new label. Unsaturated fats, found in foods such as avocado, canola oil, fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel and tuna) and nuts improve blood lipids, lessen dangerous inflammation throughout the body and keep heart rhythms steady and stable.
Alternatively, the saturated fats in foods including beef, sausage, bacon, cheese and ice cream increase the risk for many health problems, including coronary heart disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease.
Most health experts concur that these changes to the Nutrition Facts label are a welcome change and may serve to improve the well-being of the average consumer. By paying attention to a few key numbers, you can take better control of your health.