This third article in our “Go Further with Food” series enhances our understanding of the new Nutrition Facts label.The first article in the series focused on food waste, and the second turned its attention from throwing out less food to throwing more nutrient-dense food in your diet.
If you’re under the age of 30, here’s something that just might blow your mind: There was a time when finding nutrition information on packaged food wasn’t a guarantee. For most of modern history, nutrition facts weren’t required. This all changed in November 1990 when the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) became law. Prior to the NLEA, mandatory information on packaged foods was limited to the food’s name, quantity, ingredients and the name and address of the manufacturer. Nutrition information had to appear only on foods making a nutrition claim or if they were fortified with vitamins, minerals or protein.
Then, on May 8, 1994, the Nutrition Facts label was born, and although by now we may take the label for granted, it is arguably the most viewed piece of graphic design in American society. Think about it: It appears on nearly every food item in the grocery store; the average grocery store has nearly 40,000 food items; the average American shopper makes 1.5 trips to the grocery store every week; and 23 percent of Americans report that they always look at Nutrition Facts when making a purchase.
In the 24 years since its debut, the Nutrition Facts label has remained remarkably unchanged, with the biggest update coming in 2006 when trans fats labeling became mandatory. While a new line for trans fat information was created, the label’s iconic design remained intact. Now its look is changing. At the time we’re writing this, the deadlines for larger companies to put the new label into use is Jan. 1, 2020. Smaller companies have an extra year. In fact, some brands have already begun using the new label, which means that both the old and new labels are on store shelves at the same time.
You may notice the differences and have questions, so here’s a breakdown of what’s new, what’s changed and how understanding it all can help you go further with food.
Image Source: FDA
For the first time, grams of sugars added to foods and beverages will be presented on their own line, which will be directly below the newly retitled “Total Sugars” line (it used to just be labeled “Sugars”). The added sugars line will be indented below “Total Sugars” and read “Includes x grams for Added Sugars.” The word “includes” is there to help people understand that while the sugars added to products are listed individually, they are also accounted for in the “Total Sugars” amount. In other words, to determine to the absolute amount of sugar in one serving of a product, use the amount shown as “Total Sugars.”
Added sugar consumption is on a steady decline in America since 1999, but we still eat more than is recommended. By listing added sugars on the new Nutrition Facts label, people can become more aware of the amount of added sugars in foods and use the label to compare between products.
To learn more about added sugars labeling, check out our infographic here.
Vitamins and Minerals: Potassium and Vitamin D
These two aren’t newcomers to the food label, but until now neither was required to be listed. We’ve come to understand that Americans don’t get enough potassium and vitamin D and that each contributes to good health in unique ways. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium to maintain strong bones, and potassium helps lower blood pressure, particularly for those with high blood pressure.
Serving sizes may seem like recommendations, but did you know that they are required by law to be based on how much people actually eat at one time? This is measured using data from government surveys. This was last done in 1993, so it was way overdue to have serving sizes reflect eating patterns of the new millenium.
Because our eating habits have changed, some items, like pints of ice cream, will now be labeled with fewer serving sizes per container (pints are changing from four servings to three, because let’s be honest with ourselves). Other items that are typically consumed in one sitting (think a 20-ounce bottle of soda) will be listed as one serving.
This component of the Nutrition Facts label is often the most overlooked part, but not for long: Serving sizes will be more prominent, with larger and bolder type.
In what is probably the most noticeable change on the label (or at least that’s what FDA is hoping), calories are in bigger and bolder font — you won’t be able to miss them. And that’s a good thing, because along with understanding the nutrient content of our food, most of us could be a little more mindful of the number of calories we eat.
Updated Daily Values
The field of nutrition science continues to advance, and a big part of this is understanding the nourishment we need each day. Daily Values (DVs) are established by NASEM’s Food and Nutrition Board to reflect how much of a specific nutrient is needed by someone consuming a 2,000-calorie diet. Many DVs have recently been updated. On the Nutrition Facts label, DVs are expressed as a percentage — the percent of the daily value that occurs in one serving of a product.
DVs and their percentages may seem confusing, so here’s an easy way to help you get more of nutrients to encourage (like fiber, potassium, calcium, iron and vitamin D) and less of those to limit (like sodium, added sugars and saturated fat). Use the 5/20 rule:
- 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low
- 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high.
What Didn’t Make the Cut:
Calories from Fat
If you didn’t know that “calories from fat” was even on the label, chances are you’re not alone. Introduced during a time when less was known about dietary fat, this is no longer a sought-after piece of information on the label. More and more research is showing that we should focus less on the amount of fat we eat and more on the type (think unsaturated > saturated fat). Knowing the number of calories from fat doesn’t tell us anything about what type of fat is providing those calories. That’s why this information won’t appear on the new label.
Interested in learning more about dietary fats? Check out our new whiteboard video.
Vitamins and Minerals: Vitamins A and C
While still able to be listed voluntarily on the label, vitamins A and C are no longer required. That doesn’t mean these aren’t essential components to a healthy diet — they most definitely are. It just means that, on average, Americans consume enough of them each day, so calling them out on the label isn’t as critical as it once was.
With its new bolder visual elements, you probably won’t have any trouble noticing the new Nutrition Facts label. Take the opportunity to use the new information to your advantage and be more mindful of serving sizes, calories, added sugars, vitamins, minerals and more.