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Making Sense Of The New Nutrition Facts Labels On Food

nutrition facts labels

When you’re trying to adopt a healthy diet, the nutrition facts labels on food can be incredibly helpful.

They can inform your decisions about which foods you should prioritize in your diet, and which ones you should avoid (or at least only eat in moderation).

And for years, at least here in the US, nutrition labels have stayed pretty much the same.

Nothing fancy – just a basic summary of the calories and macronutrients in the food, as well as going over fiber content and a few micronutrients.

However, the FDA recently announced that they had finally approved a number of changes to nutrition facts labels, which all food manufacturers will have to comply with soon.

This would mean a fairly signifiant overall change to the traditional nutritional labels that most of us have grown accustomed to over the years.

So, to help you make sense of the upcoming changes, in this article I’ll be covering everything you need to know about the new nutrition facts labels, and how you can make use of some of the new information to improve your diet.

Summarizing The Nutrition Facts Label Changes

For those of you that want the quick version of exactly what’s changing, here is the basic breakdown:

  • Calories are listed far more prominently
  • Portion sizes are more visible (and realistic)
  • Added sugars are listed separately
  • The micronutrients listed at the bottom are different
  • Fat calories have been removed from the label
  • Suggested daily fat intake is no longer listed at the bottom

To give you a better sense of how these changes actually look, here is a side-by-side comparison of the original and new nutrition facts labels:

nutritional label old vs new

Ok, so that’s the basic changes covered – but what do they all mean, and are the changes actually useful?

Let’s find out by going through each one of them in a little more detail.

Change #1: Calories Are Listed Far More Prominently

The most striking change with the new nutrition facts labels is how much bigger the calorie listing is.

With the old labeling, calories were listed in the top section – but they were listed in the same size font as everything else and didn’t really stand out.

With the new labeling, however, the calorie listing is several fonts larger than anything else, and immediately jumps out at you when you look at the label.

Personally, I am very much behind this change.

While calories aren’t everything, and certainly don’t constitute a healthy diet by themselves, they are the biggest factor that will determine whether you lose, maintain, or gain weight.

For this reason, it makes sense to give them far greater prominence on the nutrition facts labels than anything else.

And let’s face it: most people don’t spend much time studying nutrition labels before buying food, so if there is one piece of information that should really stand out, with just a passing glance, it makes sense for it to be calories.

Change #2: Portion Sizes Are More Visible

After calories, portion sizes are now the largest item on the new nutrition labels.

And this is a very good thing indeed, since portion size confusion can easily lead to people making poor food choices.

You see, for years one of the tricks food manufactures have used is to play with the portion sizing on the labels, so that the total number of calories don’t look as bad.

This is a little sneaky at best, and completely disingenuous at worst, depending on the specific case.

For instance, let’s say you are looking at a cookie that loudly claims to be only 100 calories on the packaging.

While this might seem like a modest number of calories, when you look more closely you see that each serving size is only 1/4 of a cookie.

That means that if you eat the whole cookie, as the vast majority of people will do, you will actually be eating four 100 calorie servings, for a total of 400 calories!

And while this may be an extreme example, this type of deliberate misdirection happens all the time, so any measure that makes portion sizing more prominent is definitely a step forward.

Change #3: Added Sugars Are Listed Separately

This is one of the more controversial changes with the new nutrition labels.

If you look at the new label above, you’ll see that the sugar content is broken down into 2 separate items: ‘Total Sugars’ and ‘Added Sugars’.

This makes it easy to quickly differentiate how much of the sugar in a food product is naturally occurring, and how much of it has been added separately by the manufacturer.

Not unsurprisingly, the soda and packaged goods manufacturers have resisted this move, with the American Beverage Association claiming that “sugar is sugar, regardless of its source”, in their address to the FDA last year.

On the other hand, advocates of the move point out that differentiating added sugar from natural sugar will incentivize manufacturers to add less sugar to their products overall, which will ultimately be healthier for consumers.

In my opinion, this change isn’t terribly useful for consumers, since total sugar is what you should be concerning yourself with – regardless of whether it occurred naturally or was added afterwards.

Change #4: The Micronutrients Listed At The Bottom Are Different

At the bottom of the old nutrition fact labels, directly under the calorie and macronutrient information, there is a small, additional section about the vitamin and mineral content of the food.

However, due to the space limitations of the labels, the old labels only listed 4 vitamins/minerals: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron.

With the new labels, the FDA has substituted two of these for micronutrients that are arguably more important.

That is, Vitamin A and C are off the label, and have been replaced by Vitamin D and Potassium.

From my perspective, this change makes a lot of sense, and reflects what I have been saying in some of my articles.

Many people are deficient in both Vitamin D and Potassium, so having a better understanding of how much of these are in the foods we eat is definitely beneficial.

Change #5: Fat Calories Have Been Removed From The Label

Now while most of these changes have been additions or slight modifications, the FDA also decided to remove one longstanding item on the existing nutrition labels: the total number of calories from dietary fat.

This isn’t a major deal, since you still have the same information about fat content in grams – broken down by unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats – which is all that most of us really need anyway.

Still, the calories from fat arguably provided an easy way to determine how much of the food product was comprised of fat, relative to protein and carbohydrates.

My guess is that the original nutrition facts labels were developed during a time when lower fat diets were more popular, and reflected that with a greater emphasis on identifying fat – whereas nowadays dietary fat isn’t nearly as demonized, and many people are more concerned with limiting carbs and other additives.

Change #6: Suggested Daily Fat Intake Is No Longer Listed At The Bottom

Lastly, following on from the previous change, you’ll see that there is no longer a table at the bottom of the label giving you a suggested daily fat intake.

I assume that this change was simply based on having to make the most judicious use of the limited space, and including a suggested fat intake, arbitrarily based on a 2000 or 2500 calorie diet, just didn’t really cut it.

Personally, I agree with this change, and I doubt that anyone will miss this little table at the bottom that they likely never even considered anyway.

The Bottom Line On The New Nutrition Facts Labels

Overall, I think that the revised nutrition facts labels are a move in the right direction.

Aside from the contested added sugar change, the increase in prominence of both calories and serving sizes, as well as the prioritization of different micronutrients, makes a lot of sense – and should ultimately be more helpful for people when making food purchasing decisions.

Now, in terms of when you’re actually going to see these changes on store shelves, realistically it’s not going to be for a year or two.

The FDA has given companies up to 2 years to comply with these labeling changes, but soon enough it’ll be the new standard on all American-made food products.

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