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4 things on the new nutrition label that can help transform your health

A dietitian discusses the most notable new additions to the nutrition facts label and how they can help you make healthful choices.
Nutrition label collage of multiple packaging labels
“I like that the calories are bold so consumers can see what the numbers are,” said Nicole Holness. “It’s the first thing they see so they may further ask themselves if it’s worth it to eat the product.” TODAY Illustration / FDA / Getty Images

The nutrition facts label is the box you see on your food products that calculates nutrient information. The label is a useful tool when purchasing food, but it hasn’t had a major update in over twenty years. Now, a couple decades of nutritional research have caused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to refocus the label in ways that reflect current consumer trends and new nutrition research.

Some of the changes focus on the serving sizes and quantities of sugar Americans are eating these days, while others — like removing the requirement to include vitamin A and vitamin C on the label — were updated to address the fact that we no longer have the same vitamin deficiencies we did 20 years ago.

Here are four ways the newly improved nutrition fact labels can help you make more healthful choices when consuming packaged foods and drinks.

1. You can finally calculate added sugar

Added sugar refers to forms of sugar that don’t occur naturally in a food or drink (such as the sugar in fruit) but that are added to it. For years, public health organizations have been recommending daily limits to added sugar because research suggests that it may increase the risk for obesity and chronic diseases. With the old label, it was difficult to calculate, since all simple sugars in a product were clumped together. For example, the label on a flavored yogurt would list together both added sugars and naturally occurring sugars from lactose.

Consumers will now be able to see added sugar separated out, though it’ll be a while before this change is required for single-sugar products like pure honey, maple syrup and some dried cranberries. Malena Perdomo, a dietitian and diabetes educator based in Denver told TODAY that the new way added sugars are being represented on nutrition labels is the change she’s most excited about. Now the breakdown of sugars in products that appear to contain a lot of sugar, like raisin bran cereals, will be clearer. For example, she said, “How much of the sugar is naturally in the raisins versus added sugar? The new labels will address that.”

2. Serving sizes reflect the amounts people are actually eating

The older label determined portion sizes based on what individuals should be eating and not what they were actually eating. For example, people are more likely to consume at least a half pint of ice cream, rather than the quarter pint that was previously suggested as a serving size. In this way, the new label will offer a more accurate depiction of consumer habits. After all, when most people buy a bottle of soda, they’re drinking the whole thing, and not portioning out less than what the bottle contains.

This change to the label may lead to improvements in eating habits, including helping to prevent overeating. Nicole Holness, a registered dietitian and owner of Holnesss Nutrition in New York City, supports the change to serving size. “That’s important so that the person is less likely to eat the entire container,” she said. “It helps them to make a more informed decision.”

3. Calories from fat have been removed

The old label calculated the percentage of calories from fat, which suggested that all fat was created equal. It also suggested that the calories from these fats were the most important values. New data shows that it’s not the calories from fat that matters, but rather the type of fat. For example, studies show that unsaturated fats (mono and poly) may play a role in disease prevention by reducing risk factors for metabolic syndrome and may also assist with weight management. Some saturated fats may actually increase the risk for chronic disease.

4. It’s harder to ignore total calories

The new label exhibits a bolder approach to portion sizes and calories, making them hard to miss (and even harder to ignore). Calories from certain products may be also shown in two depictions — both the total calories per serving, as well as the total if you end up eating the whole package. Holness said that the new calorie addition could be a big benefit. “I like that the calories are bold so consumers can see what the numbers are,” she said. “It’s the first thing they see, so they may further ask themselves if it’s worth it to eat the product.”

The label may support change, but education is still key

Consumer surveys indicate that individuals may think the portion size of a product is the “recommended” amount they should consume. Therefore, in addition to the new labeling, explaining what's meant by "portion sizes" is critical to helping people understand how much to eat. With this in mind, some dietitians may also need to adjust the way they educate patients.

Perdomo, for example, approves of the new label, but she said she’ll “miss the little box that showed nutrient recommendation based on a 2,000-calorie diet.” She used to advise clients to look at that “mini box as a reminder that sodium should be less than 2,300 milligrams per day and to aim for over 25 grams of dietary fiber.”

The FDA's new nutrition facts label gives a better sense of the nutrients and servings we need to focus on for better health these days. It’s a beneficial tool for achieving an overall healthy lifestyle — and one that can help support nutritional education efforts to teach people how to make healthful choices that contribute to a lifelong healthy and balanced diet.