Around its 25th birthday, the Nutrition Facts label received a very special present: a makeover. In May 2016, the FDA finalized several changes to better reflect current scientific information about the link between diet and chronic disease, and better equip consumers with the information needed to make informed dietary decisions. Manufacturers originally had to comply with the new changes by 2018; however, this has now been pushed back to 2020 for companies with greater than $10 million in annual food sales, or 2021 for companies with less than that. The updated label is already being rolled out, so now is as good a time as any to review the changes.
Evolution of the Nutrition Label
For the first part of the 20th century Americans mostly ate home-cooked meals. If someone wanted to know what was in their food they didn’t need a nutrition label because they just asked mom. But as we entered the “swinging sixties,” how Americans lived and ate had begun a paradigm shift. The decade started with the approval of the first-ever oral contraceptive pill, an undeniable symbol of freedom. Capitalizing on the recent drive-thru phenomenon, Ray Kroc was in the midst of building what would become the most successful fast food franchise ever, known by its iconic Golden Arches. Swanson frozen TV dinners were quickly becoming a staple at the dinner table, especially when a dessert compartment was added in 1960. As if things couldn’t get any better, the decade closed with Apollo 11 landing on the moon, cementing the ethos of the era.
As the popularity of convenience foods increased, so did the questions about the contents of those foods. At that time packaging had limited information because no standardized system for nutritional information existed, nor was the information mandatory. As you salivate over this image of cryogenically frozen meat full of ice crystals which preserve the food but destroy flavor, with high levels of sodium, fat and additives to compensate, you may notice there is no nutritional information to be found. In 1969 the government realized that if the lunar surface was no longer a mystery to us, the ingredients in our food shouldn’t be either. The White House urged the FDA to develop a system to identify the nutritional quality of food, and several years later the FDA delivered-kind of. The Nutrition Facts label still wasn’t made mandatory unless a manufacturer added nutrients to a food or made nutritional claims. If the label was present, it only indicated the amounts of fat, protein, carbohydrates, number of calories, and Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of a handful of nutrients. The FDA did the best it could with what little dietary information was known at the time, and it would be another 20 years until the Nutrition Facts label we know today was finalized with the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990.
The NLEA established the overall design, provided guidelines for determining an appropriate serving sizes, and made the label mandatory for packaged foods. It used data from two large health studies completed in the eighties to establish Daily Values (DVs) for fat, saturated fat, unsaturated fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, fiber, sodium, and potassium. This was important because until this point the recommendations for how much of each to consume were unclear. Several years later, as more information came out about the cardiovascular risks associated with trans fats, they were eventually added. Other than that the label didn’t change much until 2016.
A Closer Look
Now that we’ve covered the relatively short history of the nutrition label, let’s take a look at the new and improved version. The FDA was nice enough to juxtapose the old and new labels to better illustrate the changes.
Calories Per Serving
I’m not an ophthalmologist, but if you can’t find the “Calories Per Serving” on the new label you may need to have your eyes checked. With the health benefits of calorie restriction well documented, spotlighting the calories to make consumers more aware of their caloric intake so they eat less makes sense. It’s a step in the right direction, but research shows there may be better options. A Cochrane Review published in 2015 found that when presented with larger portions, children and adults in the UK eat more. They estimated that if exposed to smaller packages or portion sizes consistently, overall caloric intake could be significantly reduced. This isn’t very surprising, nor is the fact that food manufacturers aren’t clambering to provide smaller package sizes despite what we know. Food manufacturers want to make money, and the more consumers eat, the more money they make. And in many cases, profit margins are much better for larger package sizes. The FDA has the power to mandate individually packaged serving sizes, and maybe someday it will, but for now it’s hoping larger font will be enough.
The nutrients section will have two major changes, one of which is the nutrients themselves. In the past, it was mandatory for the label to show the Percent Daily Value (%DV) of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. Although Vitamin A and Vitamin C deficiencies are still common in developing countries, research shows they are relatively rare in America; so they’re being replaced two nutrients for which deficiencies are still problematic: Vitamin D and Potassium. And for the first time, the amounts of each per serving will be reported in addition to the %DV. The Daily Values for fiber and sodium will also be slightly different to reflect new recommendations: 28 g of fiber for a 2,000 calorie diet and a maximum of 2,300 mg of sodium daily.
Can you remember the last time you paid attention to the “Calories from Fat” on the label? Me neither. Luckily the FDA has decided to do away with it, mostly because the consensus is the type of fat consumed (saturated versus unsaturated) matters more than the amount. This also frees up plenty of room for the gigantic “Calories Per Serving” section.
The most significant change to the nutrition label is that manufacturers will now have to specify the amount of “Added Sugar” in their products, which will appear on its own line under “Total Sugar” as an amount (grams) and %DV. Interestingly, many proposed putting added sugar on the nutrition label 25 years ago but the idea was rejected by the FDA for several reasons. The FDA defines added sugars as “Sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.”
Basically, any sugar added during the manufacturing or packaging process is considered “added sugar,” including dextrose, fructose, sucrose, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, sugar, raw sugar and high fructose corn syrup. The confusing part is that all of these sugars are also considered natural sugars (yes, even high fructose corn syrup.) How can a sugar be both “natural” and “added?” Let’s say you go into your pantry for a snack and decide (for some reason) to eat a tablespoon of honey straight from the jar. Upon doing so, you have just consumed 16 grams of natural sugar. Later, you back go back to your pantry for round two and come out with a handful of delicious Nabisco cookies sweetened with a tablespoon of honey. Upon eating those cookies you will have consumed 16 grams of added sugar because you are eating honey that was added to those cookies during the manufacturing process. It’s mostly a matter of semantics. Consumed on its own, honey is considered natural; add it to baked goods and it becomes added sugar.
There is still no consensus on the maximum amount of total sugar to eat daily, but there are now guidelines for added sugar. Scientific data from food surveys shows that when more than 10% of total calories daily come from added sugar, it is difficult to both stay within calorie limits and get enough nutrients, so the American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams (100 calories) of added sugar daily for woman and 36 grams (150 calories) daily for men. A 12 ounce can of Coke has 39 grams of sugar, which is really added sugar because Coke doesn’t grow on trees. If you drink a Coke, savor it, because once the last sip has touched your lips you’ve met your added sugar quota for the day.
By now you’re probably asking yourself if the body can tell the difference between natural and added sugar, and whether all of this matters. Sugars may be metabolized by different pathways depending on the type of sugar, but there is no clear evidence that added sugar is necessarily worse for your health. I think the emphasis on added sugar can be better understood by taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. A diet high in added sugar is theoretically also high in processed foods like sugary drinks, candy, and baked goods. These foods taste great but they’re pretty low on the nutritional value totem pole. By limiting added sugar intake, you inevitably have to stick to a healthier diet with less processed food. In this sense, added sugar is more like a barometer for how healthy your diet is.
The old nutrition label gave detailed information about how much fat, cholesterol, sodium, and carbohydrates to eat based on daily caloric intake and needs. The new footnote simply offers a brief explanation of what a %DV is, again freeing up more room for the eye exam. I mean the “Calories Per Serving.”
The “Serving Size” has now been repositioned and made larger to be more prominent on the label. We have all been told to pay close attention to the serving size, but have you ever wondered how serving size is determined? There are many layers of government organizations involved, but at the core is a very precise mathematical equation which accounts for calories, metabolism and nutrient intake. Okay, that’s not really true. By law, the serving size must reflect the amount consumers actually eat, not what they should eat. Every few years the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) performs national food surveys that ask people about their eating habits. The USDA provides this information to the FDA, which then provides it to food manufacturers to help them determine serving sizes. In the end, it’s the consumer, not a scientific or mathematical process, who determines serving sizes.
The caveat with this is that how much we eat has increased dramatically over the years. For example, the serving size for ice cream has been one half of a cup for many years. National food surveys show that a typical portion is now two thirds of a cup, so the serving size for ice cream will increase accordingly, by law.
Consumers look to serving size as a guide for how much to eat, but need to understand it is really there to standardize the reporting of nutritional information on the label. Consumers should pay attention to it within the context of their overall diet. Let’s say you are like most Americans who can’t start their morning without coffee. You head to Starbucks to get your caffeine fix with a tall Caramel Macchiato and its 25 grams of added sugar. Later that night you want ice cream for dessert. The serving size is 2/3 cup, with maybe 20 grams of added sugar. Can you eat a serving of ice cream and stay within the recommended added sugar limits? If you’re a woman, the answer is no, because your Starbucks coffee had all the added sugar you should have in a day. If you’re a man, you can maybe have a few bites if you didn’t consume any more added sugar after your coffee, which is highly unlikely.
The Bottom Line
It took a quarter of a century for the Nutrition Facts label to get a major update, which is a reminder that although informative, nutrition labels shouldn’t be relied upon for the most up to date information. It’s a guide to help along the way, but it is up to consumers to stay informed about the latest dietary guidelines, and their own health. Fifty years ago we didn’t know much about what was in our food; now we know almost everything. Even so, the nutrition label is proof that even when information is neatly outlined for us, we should still be curious enough to ask questions and read between the lines.