If you are accustomed to looking at nutrition facts on food labels or want to start, there are some new big changes that have occurred. Nutrition facts labels were introduced more than 25 years ago, and this new label mandate is the first update since 2006; it’s been a long time coming. This new label was approved by the FDA in 2016, but the labels were delayed until January 1, 2020, due to successful lobbying by food manufacturers. The food manufacturers with less than 10 million dollars in annual food sales have an additional year to comply. You may have already noticed the new labels, although they are still being rolled out by companies and enforcement won’t begin until July.
The look of the Nutrition Facts label is the same, but there are some important, although often subtle, changes.
- Let’s start with serving sizes. This serving size issue is important because it changes all the nutrition numbers that are based on one serving. Here are some examples: One serving of ice cream used to be a half cup, but now is 2/3 of a cup. A serving of soda was 8 oz, now it’s 12 ounces. If there is a product that contains between 1 and 2 servings, the label must reflect a single serving. Also, and I like this one, if a product has 2 or 3 servings per package, then there will be dual columns that show “per serving” nutrition facts and “per package” nutrition facts. But buyer beware. Don’ t let these increased serving sizes be an excuse to eat more!
- Another change is that calorie counts will be listed in bold, so as to get our attention.
- Another change, based on evolving research and understanding, is that “calories from fat” will no longer be listed. This is based on the fact that the type of fat is more important than the amount of fat. Not all fats are bad and there are distinct health impact differences between unsaturated vs. saturated fats. The fats in avocados and nuts are very different than the fats in cheese and bacon. Do remember though, that fats are calorie-dense and thus higher fat foods come with more calories. “Total fat” will remain, along with saturated fat and trans fats.
- There have finally been some changes in the “sugars” category. The old label did not make any distinction between sugars that were naturally present in the foods (such as milk sugar in milk and fruit sugar in fruits) and sugars that were added during the manufacturing process. They merely lumped them all together as sugars. Now, you can see that some of the sugar in your sweetened applesauce or sweetened yogurt is added, and other sugars are natural to the ingredient. Let’s say you are eating a baked sweet potato, which naturally has about 13 grams of sugar, which is similar to a cup of fruit punch. But the sweet potato comes with fiber, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin A.
The daily value (DV) for added sugars on the new labels is 10% of daily calories; this is 50 grams per 2,000 calories or about 12 tsp of sugar…. which to me, is excessive in terms of added sugar daily. Sadly, the average American consumes about 22 tsp of added sugar daily and a whopping 40% of that comes from sugary sodas and other beverages. There is a large body of research linking added sugars to a greater risk of increased LDL cholesterol, increased triglycerides, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and dental cavities. Added sugar comes in the form of table sugar, any caloric sweetener added in processing (date sugar, stevia, honey, brown sugar, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, juice concentrate, agave, molasses, cane juice, malt syrup, brown rice syrup, beet sugar, dextrose, and fruit nectar). Some of those sound healthier than regular sugar, but mostly, that is not true.
The last part of the food label lists the four nutrients, potassium, vitamin D, calcium and iron. These are nutrients that may not be adequately consumed in the diet. Vitamins A and C have been dropped as required listings, but some companies may still voluntarily list them.
One more thing, the meaning of daily values or DV. DVs are the daily recommended intake of nutrients. The % DVs help you compare the nutrient content of the product while in the context of the total diet. 2,000 calories per day is used for general nutrition advice. For example, the DV for saturated fat is 20 gm. If a food has 5 grams of saturated fat per serving… This translates to 25% of the DV for someone who eats 2,000 calories per day. Another example: the DV for calcium is 1,300 mg; if a portion of food had 130 mg of calcium then it is providing 10% of the DV. This should help you to understand, by looking at the label, whether a food has a lot or just a little of a particular nutrient per serving.
You will also want to know that the DV for fiber has been increased from 25 grams to 28 grams per day (if you consume 2,000 calories per day). The DV for sodium has been slightly decreased from 2,400 mg to 2,300 mg per day and of course, folks with hypertension or cardiovascular disease should have a goal of less than 1,500 mg/day. The DV for potassium increased from 2,500 mg to 4,700 mg/day. The DV for calcium increased from 1,000 mg to 1,300 mg and the DV for Vit D is now 800 IU, but now appears in mcg for IU and thus is 200 mcg (= 800 IU).
All in all, it’s good to get familiar with the labels when you shop as it might help you to choose a healthier product, but the numbers alone aren’t enough. What are the other ingredients in the product? For example, whole grains or not. How much salt? How many total carbs and total protein? These are all listed on the labels as well. However, lest we forget, most of our healthiest foods won’t have labels such as these. Think vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.
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