Let’s face it, food labels are confusing and food shopping can be frustrating when you're trying to make sense of all those numbers and percentages on product labels. Since today’s consumers are demanding more transparency from companies and the government about what's really in their food, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is finally implementing a label change that's been years in the making.
On Jan. 1, 2020, the FDA confirmed that its previously announced nutrition facts label makeover would be going into effect. Now, according to the agency, packaged goods will more accurately "reflect new scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease." Large food producers (companies with $10 million or more in annual sales) must immediately use the new labeling system, while smaller food companies have until Jan. 1, 2021 to comply with the new regulation.
Here are the big changes consumers will be able to see on the new nutrition labels.
Even though many of us are aware of what calories are, that doesn't mean we always abide by the recommended daily amount. On the new label, the amount of calories will be displayed in a larger font size and the numbers will be bolder to bring more attention to an important indicator of a product's relative health value.
Serving sizes will be tweaked to reflect how Americans are really eating today. Instead of saying 1/2 of a muffin, for example, to make the calorie count seem less, the whole product's serving size will be listed. Ideally, this will also cut down on the math required to figure out exactly what you're eating.
In some product cases, where the entire package could be consumed in one sitting (like a bag of chips or a bottle of soda), you may find a nutrition label with two columns: one column will represent the recommended serving (like seven chips), and the other will display how much you're eating if you consumed the entire package.
Calories from fat
This figure has been ditched entirely. As a society, we have become less fat phobic (keto, anyone?), so the powers that be decided that this often ignored figure took up too much precious real estate on the relatively compact label.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most of the sodium Americans consume doesn’t come straight from the shaker, it comes from packaged foods and higher-calorie restaurant meals. Checking out the sodium content on labels is important, especially for those with high blood pressure. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that we should try to stick to less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. For reference, just 1 teaspoon of salt contains about 2,300 milligrams of sodium. A big pickle may clock in at a whopping 1,700 milligrams. While sodium itself isn't going anywhere, it's one of the label elements that's getting a revamped daily value percentage since the daily amount used to be 2,400 milligrams.
On the new label, the amount of sugar that has been added during the processing of foods will be separated out from sugars derived naturally from foods such as fruit. These added sugars will be indented after total sugars on the label. If you really want to know where your sugar is coming from, however, you’ll need to scoot further down that label to the ingredient list and pay attention to where sugar appears in the list, as well as its many, many aliases (high fructose corn syrup, organic cane juice and dextrose, to name a few). In general, you shouldn't be getting more than 10% of your daily calorie intake from added sugars.
A totally new player on the updated food label is potassium. According to several studies, this essential mineral, which is commonly associated with bananas, is missing from a lot of Americans' diets. Filling half of your plate with fruits and veggies at every meal would help everyone get more potassium, but that's not always realistic. It's currently recommended that we need 3,500-4,700 milligrams per day so paying attention to how much potassium is in a packaged good will help you keep better track of your daily intake.
Like potassium, vitamin D is another nutrient lacking in many American diets. The recommended daily value for vitamin D is 400-800 IU, depending on your age and state of health. You’ll find vitamin D in the flesh of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna and mackerel) and fish liver oils. It's also present (in smaller amounts) in beef liver, cheese and egg yolks. The amount of vitamin D in the packaged good will now be listed in micrograms below the macro nutrients.
Vitamins A and C
Listing these vitamins on nutrition labels used to be mandatory, but since most Americans now receive their daily needs of these vitamins, companies may now choose if they want to list that info at all.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN is the creator of BetterThanDieting.com, author of Read It Before You Eat It - Taking You from Label to Table. Follow her on Instagram @bonnietaubdix.