New Nutrition Labels: The Clean Plates Primer

These packaged-food icons are getting their first refresh in decades—here’s what you need to know

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Woman looking at food label

What You Need To Know:

  • The times are a changin’ but food labels haven’t—until now.
  • The new food label’s biggest modifications include highlighting added sugars, calories and nutrient amounts, as well as more realistic serving sizes.
  • Calories from fat will no longer be required.

By Beth Lipton

If you’ve stepped foot in a supermarket since 1993, then you’ve interacted with the iconic nutrition label created by the Food and Drug Administration more than two decades ago.

We take them so much for granted that nearly half of us don’t even look at them when we’re buying food products. For those that do, oftentimes we just look at one thing, like calories or fat. 

But there’s good news—the labels are going to get their first real makeover. Why? “The FDA finalized the new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to reflect updated scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease,” Lauren Kotwicki, a spokesperson for the FDA tells Clean Plates. “The new label will make it easier for consumers to make better-informed food choices.”

Here’s everything you need to know about what’s coming in 2018-2019, with some expert insight into what it all means.

“I’m excited about the new label,” Bonnie Taub-Dix , R.D., creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It, tells Clean Plates. “It’s a change for the first time in 20 years. Studies have shown that 60 percent of people read the label. So 40 percent throw things in their cart without reading the labels at all. But even the 60 percent don’t necessarily understand what they’re reading.”

“Looking at labels is so confusing, and it should be like using an iPhone, really intuitive,” adds Stephanie Middleberg, R.D., and owner of New York-based wellness practice Middleberg Nutrition. “This is progress, a step in the right direction.”

Here’s a peek at what the new label will look like, and what’s changing:

nfl-infographic-may-2016

Calories: The first thing you notice is that the calorie number is displayed in larger font. “The calories are bigger, and that’s good; they need to be emphasized,” Taub-Dix says.

Serving Size: “It’s going to reflect what people actually eat and drink,” says Taub-Dix. “For example, ice cream was ½ cup, and now it will be ¾ cup. Hopefully, it will be more realistic. I’ve seen labels where the serving size is half of a muffin. Come on. Once you’ve opened that bag, you’re eating the whole muffin.”

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act requires the serving sizes to be based on amounts of food and drink that people actually eat, not on what they should be eating,” Kotwicki says. “Today, people are eating differently, so some of the serving sizes on labels, and the amount of calories and nutrients that go with them, are out of date. The FDA is updating the serving size requirements to more accurately reflect what people actually eat and drink and setting new labeling requirements for certain size packages. Under the final rule, some serving sizes will increase and others will decrease.”

Added Sugars: Another big change is that sugars added by manufacturers will be called out. This will help people understand how much sugar naturally occurs in food as opposed to what is being put in. Taub-Dix gives the example of chocolate milk. When you’re evaluating which brand to buy, currently you have to remember that an 8-ounce cup of whole milk has 13g of sugar. With the new labels, you’ll have that 13g broken out for you, so you can easily compare how much more sugar the manufacturers are adding.

“To call out the added sugars is a great thing, the biggest win,” Middleberg says. “Before people didn’t know what to look for. When manufacturers had to call out trans fat on the labels, it made many of them remove them from their products. Now maybe they’ll reduce added sugars since it’s called out. I just hope they won’t replace them with artificial sweeteners.”

Nutrients: If you are the type who scans the whole label (as we do), you’ll notice that some of the nutrients that are displayed are changing, and the actual amounts are being added along with the percentages of daily calories.

“Vitamins A and C are no longer required because deficiencies in these vitamins are rare today,” Taub-Dix notes. “Vitamin D, iron, calcium and potassium are nutrients we aren’t necessarily getting enough of.”

Calling out the amounts of the nutrients and not just the percent of the daily value is important, because “food labels have been based upon a diet that includes 2,000 calories a day,” says Taub-Dix. “These are numbers for the general population. A woman who’s 5-foot-3 and moderately active doesn’t need 2,000 calories per day, so the percentages on the label don’t really apply. Or if you’re a teenage boy on the track team, you need more, so those numbers won’t work for you either.”

Calories From Fat: Disappearing from labels is the percentage of calories from fat. “Who even knew what that meant?” Middleberg says. “That was so strong on the label; it got people concerned that fat was a negative. Dietary guidelines are shifting. We know now that fats should be part of the diet, especially healthy fats. So removing that figure, which basically just scared people, is helpful.”

If you need some time to get used to all these changes, don’t worry: These labels will not be mandatory until July 2018, though you may begin to see voluntary changes on some labels; Kind Bars, for example, began calling out added sugars in August.

Keep in mind, also, that the numbers on nutrition labels are only useful up to a point: “The ingredients should still be the number one thing consumers are looking at on labels,” Middleberg says. “A food can have the ‘right’ amount of calories but still not be something that’s beneficial for you.”

Want to know more? Learn about the 9 Red-Flag Ingredients To Watch Out For; and watch our What’s In Your Food video series, where New Yorkers discover there are some weird ingredients lurking in their favorite foods.