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Nutrition Labels are Changing (For the First Time in 20 Years!)

May 20, 2016

Today, Michelle Obama will unveil the first changes to the country's nutrition labels in over 20 years, Politico reported. (The Nutrition Facts label hasn't changed significantly since 1994—imagine if computers, cell phones, or the grain aisle of the grocery store were so static!)

"The impact of the rule is difficult to overstate," writes Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico. In two years, billions of package labels will be overhauled to include the amount of added sugar and a suggestion for an added sugar limit. (Smaller companies—those with less than $10 million in annual sales—will have three years to comply.)

The FDA's decision is the end results of a "yearslong push by the Obama administration into stiff opposition from food and beverage companies, which say there is no difference between naturally present sugars and added sugars," according to the Wall Street Journal. The recommended sugar maximum will join the suggested limits for fats, sodium, cholesterol, and carbohydrates.

While the increased information on sugar levels (specifically: "Added Sugars" stated in grams and as a percent of daily value directly beneath "Total Sugar" count) might be the most controversial change, it's not the only one. Here's what else you can expect from the updated labels:

  • Making important information bold: The type size for "Calories," "servings per container," and "serving size" will be increased (and the calorie count and serving size numbers will be bolded)
  • Introducing Vitamin D and potassium: The list of nutrients required or allowed to be declared is being updated so that Vitamin D and potassium must be listed; calcium and iron will continue to be required; and Vitamins A and C will be optional
  • Emphasis on type of fat rather than calories from fat: "Calories from fat" will be removed (though the amount of "Total Fat," "Saturated Fat," and "Trans Fat" will remain (this is because, according to the FDA, "research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount")
  • Updates to recommended daily values for nutrients like sodium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D are being updated based on new scientific evidence
  • Updates to serving sizes to reflect the amount of foods and beverage people actually eat, not what they should be eating; since the amount the people consume has changed since the first serving size requirements were published in over 20 years ago, the reference amounts must change (as an example: the reference amount for a serving of ice cream, previously 1/2 cup, is now changing to 2/3 cup)
  • Taking package size into account: Because package size affects what people eat (if two servings are contained in a single package, people typically consume it in one sitting), packages that are between 1 and 2 servings are required to be labeled as a single serving
  • Nutritional information for entire package made more apparent: For products that are larger than a single serving but that could be consumed in one or multiple sittings, manufacturers must use "dual column" labels to show nutrient information based on a per serving and per package basis (this way, people can easily understand the calories and nutrients of the entire package)
Photo by FDA

While many food policy advocates are pleased with the changes—"This is an enormous accomplishment," Marion Nestle told Politico—others, like Dr. Sean Lucan, worry that the labels place too much emphasis on calories and fat: "A focus on calories," Lucan wrote in a Forbes op-ed, "almost by definition becomes a focus on fat; high-fat, higher-calories foods become the unhealthy and undesirable choice; low-fat, lower-calorie foods become healthy and desirable. But this isn’t necessarily true."

Regardless of the value of the updates, the new labels might take a bit of getting used to—though, designphiles, don't be concerned: The FDA has declared that "the 'iconic' look of the label remains."

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Excited by the label changes? Skeptical? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Avery J. May 20, 2016
Mixing *recommended* daily values of various vitamins with *maximum* suggested amounts of anything else (sodium and now sugar) in the same label is just going to confuse the hell out of the average busy shopper. I've talked to plenty of confused people who assume that they should work to ensure that they're getting enough salt in their diets, using food labels as their guides. Stating a new maximum percentage of sugar within the recommended daily amounts of various nutrients is a flat-out disaster: I can already hear some of my very busy friends say "But I haven't gotten all the sugars I need today, I've been tracking the food labels carefully, these are daily recommended values and my sugar consumption is actually less than what is recommended." I've heard it with salt, and now the FDA is making the very same mistake by adding maximum sugar levels within a "recommended daily value" table! This is not good at all.
Fredrik B. May 20, 2016
Not that I normally read nutrition labels, but I'm actually kind of glad about the whole "single serving" thing. It's always peeved me that something that is obviously going to be consumed as one serving gets away with labelling themselves as 2 servings. Or even "1.5", which is ridiculous.
Taste O. May 20, 2016
I think it's great. I hope people start to visualize how many teaspoons X grams of sugar is. There's a big difference between the sweetness that comes naturally from a fruit or vegetable, and one that is heightened by added sugar.