After more than 20 years of the same old same old, big changes are coming to nutrition labels in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration announced in May 2016 that food manufacturers should prepare to include added sugars, update daily value percentages, and retool serving sizes for certain products. Whether you’re an expert at decoding the current label or you never flip the box in fear of what you’ll find, this article breaks down the basics you need to know before changes roll out on July 26, 2018.
Accounting for Added Sugars
The biggest change for nutrition labels is including values for added sugars, which will be listed in grams and as a percentage of a 2,000-calorie diet. Added sugars currently account for about 13 percent of calories in the American diet. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage citizens to reduce this number to 10 percent. Including added sugars right on the label is a way to help with that, because lots of food products contain sugar that you wouldn’t normally think of as sweet—like fat-free salad dressing or pasta with marinara sauce.
“Sugars have been hidden for far too long,” Dr. Marion Nestle, New York University professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health explained. “For people who read labels, this information is going to come as a big surprise.”
Printing added sugars on the label is also beneficial because sugars don’t always sound like sugars in the ingredient list. Added sugars can be listed with vague-sounding names, such as dextrose, fruit juice, maltol, and panocha. Manufacturers use more than 60 specific types of added sugars, and these can be mixed and matched so the sugar comes from several sources, making it less noticeable on the label.
In addition to keeping consumers informed about how much sugar is in their food, the Center for Science in the Public Interest foresees another potential benefit. The organization’s president, Michael F. Jacobson, said, “The new labels should also spur food manufacturers to add less sugar to their products.”
Optimizing Visual Design
The new label will look similar to what you’re used to, with some small but significant changes. The first thing you’ll likely notice is a more prominent calorie count, making it simple to get the most basic nutritional information at a glance. The type for serving size and number of servings per package will also appear bolder and larger.
There will be less noticeable changes as well. An updated footnote explains how the percentage of daily value works. Calories from fat will no longer be listed “because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount,” according to the FDA. Some nutrients that were required won’t be mandatory anymore, while others will become mandatory. And in addition to listing the percentage of daily value for certain nutrients, manufacturers must list actual amounts.
Including Per-Package Values
Let’s be real—most of us don’t eat half a cup of ice cream and then stop. “By law,” the FDA said, “serving sizes must be based on amounts of foods and beverages that people are actually eating.” Serving sizes will adjust on the new label to reflect changes in appetites since the standard was set in 1993. The new standard for ice cream will increase to two-thirds of a cup, and servings of soda will go up from 8 ounces to 12 ounces, for example.
The FDA also recognizes that the amount of food in a package influences how much a person will eat. With the new label, packages that previously contained between one and two servings will now be considered a single serving. That means the listed nutrition information will be more likely to reflect how much people typically consume. And if a product contains two or more servings, manufacturers will list two columns of data. One will reflect the recommended serving, and the other will provide information about the total package.
When the FDA initially proposed these changes, they were met with opposition from some affected companies and organizations. General Mills did not support printing added sugar values because natural and added sugars have the same impact on health. The Sugar Association published a statement expressing disappointment that the FDA would require added sugars be included. The mandate to list added sugars “sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science,” they wrote, and “the science used by FDA to propose ‘added sugars’ labeling and a DRV [Daily Reference Value] would not withstand the scrutiny of a quality, impartial evaluation of the full body of scientific evidence.”
However, response has overall been positive. “Americans concerned about nutrition and their health owe a special debt of gratitude for the role played by the First Lady of the United States,” Jacobson said. “Michelle Obama’s leadership accelerated these updates to Nutrition Facts labels, and the helpful changes will be a major part of the Obama administration’s food policy legacy.”