Ask The Expert: What Do The New Food Labels Really Mean?

The FDA proposed new food labels Thursday. But is it enough?

Food labels via the FDA

Food labels via the FDA

By now you’ve heard that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced their intention to update the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to reflect the latest scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. (The agency is accepting public comments on the matter for 90 days.)

The FDA says in a report that the new food labels also would replace out-of-date serving sizes to better align with how people are really eating today as opposed to when the labels were created 20 years ago. “It would feature a fresh design to highlight key parts of the label such as calories and serving sizes,” the FDA website says.

“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” First Lady Michelle Obama said in a statement. “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”

Here are some of the key changes to the label the FDA proposed:

  • Require information about the amount of “added sugars” in a food product. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that intake of added sugar is too high in the U.S. population and should be reduced. The FDA proposes to include “added sugars” on the label to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product.
  • Update serving size requirements to reflect the amounts people currently eat. What and how much people eat and drink has changed since the serving sizes were first put in place in 1994. By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what people “should” be eating. Present calorie and nutrition information for the whole package of certain food products that could be consumed in one sitting.
  • Require the declaration of potassium and vitamin D, nutrients that some in the U.S. population are not getting enough of, which puts them at higher risk for chronic disease. Vitamin D is important for its role in bone health. Potassium is beneficial in lowering blood pressure. Vitamins A and C would no longer be required on the label, though manufacturers could declare them voluntarily.
  • While continuing to require “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” on the label, “Calories from Fat” would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.

But what does all of this really mean and how does it affect us as consumers? We asked Kate Scarlata, a Boston-based registered dietitian and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Well with IBS for some answers.

“It’s a step in the right direction, and one change that I think is very important is noting added sugar in a product,” Scarlata says. “This will help the consumer identify added sugar vs. naturally occurring sugar in a product. For example, fruited yogurt has sugar naturally from the lactose (milk sugar) and often sucrose (table sugar) added to it. With current labeling, the consumer can not identify how much added sugar vs. naturally occurring sugar is in the product.”

But Scarlata says that she has mixed feelings on changing on portion sizes to more “realistic” proportions. “A serving of ice cream is 1/2 cup and the proposed change would up that to 1 cup as this would represent closer to what people are consuming,” she says. “A 20 ounce soda could potentially be listed as one serving vs. the current labeling which states the serving is 8 ounce.” A positive aspect to the label change is that it will help consumers identify nutrition facts in the typical American serving size, but on the other hand, as Scarlata notes, “it potentially ups the serving size which may send a mixed message. Do we really need to increase the serving size of desserts and sweet drinks in America? I think 20 ounces of soda as one serving is far too much. Soda offers no nutritional bang for its buck. That said, I thinking upping the serving size to reflect what a person is likely eating is a move in the right direction.”

Scarlata does have one suggestion for the FDA that is not a part of the proposed label changes. She wants the agency to consider adding magnesium to the label. “It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of Americans fall short on magnesium intake,” she says. “Magnesium plays and important role in blood pressure and blood sugar regulation. It is involved in over 300 reactions in the body. Calories will be larger on the new label but I would like to see nutrients taking center stage instead. I think most people are hyper-focused on calories while we should be more focused on how we are nourishing our bodies.”