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How the Redesigned Nutrition Facts Label Can Change the Way America Eats

The much-maligned nutrition facts label is finally getting a makeover.

Ekaterina_Minaeva/Shutterstock

In the 23 years since the nutrition facts label first appeared on the backs of most packaged foods, there has only been one significant change — the addition of trans fat numbers in 2006. But since 1992, critics have derided the label for not reflecting the way modern Americans eat, being hard to read and use, and not including enough information about everything from sugar to caffeine content. Food companies and consumer groups have tried to create more readable solutions — making health claims like "good source of fiber" or putting select nutritional information on the front of the package — to varying results.

But within the next few years, consumers can expect a complete transformation. The first redesign was announced by the Food and Drug Administration in March 2014 and last month, the FDA added another proposed change. The changes, in tandem, will affect both the labels' design and what they actually measure, reconsidering serving sizes and point out different nutritional information. But according to FDA press officer Lauren Kotwicki, shoppers shouldn't expect to see new labels in the grocery aisles just yet. First, the new rules have to be finalized by the FDA: The organization takes public comments and advice from dietary, regulatory, and other groups within the agency into consideration before approval (the newest proposals are open for public comment until October 13, 2015). Since the process takes place within one agency, it's difficult for outsiders to track how long it may take to get a final ruling — or how many more proposals will emerge before the changes are finalized.

But once that has happened, the FDA has proposed to allow manufacturers up to two years to comply with the new regulations. Though there could be further additions to the redesign, here are the changes consumers should know:

First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2014 unveiling of the proposed label changes. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Serving sizes updated:

By law, serving sizes on packaged food have to reflect how much people actually eat in one sitting — not, as widely assumed, the "suggested" serving size. The standards for current serving sizes were last updated in 1994 and are based on Nationwide Food Consumption Surveys from 1977-78 and 1987-88. According to the FDA, newer data shows that about 17 percent of these sizes no longer fit with American eating habits. If consumers across the United States are eating more — regularly finishing a half-pint of ice cream by themselves during one movie — then the nutrition facts label should list that pint as two servings, not four servings as currently listed.

Seventeen percent of the labels’ serving sizes no longer fit with American eating habits.

Currently, food packages that contain between 150 and 200 percent of the "reference amounts customarily consumed" (RACC, aka "how much people tend to eat in one meal") can be listed as more than one serving. The FDA has proposed ending that allowance: Since these portions are only slightly larger than "regular" or average RACCs, people often end up treating them as a single serving. Fifteen-ounce soups and 20-ounce sodas, for example, will both be listed as one serving if the proposed changes become law. Products containing between 200 and 400 percent of the RACC could also be required to have a dual-column label which lists nutritional information both per serving and per package, since it's possible that people will eat them in one sitting. (Think of eating a pint of ice cream by yourself or an entire package of cookies.)

However, not everyone thinks that this proposed change is for the best. Harvard's Behavioral Science and Regulation Group notes that "more than half of consumers perceive the term ‘serving size' to be a recommended serving size, not an amount customarily consumed." Since so much of nutritional information is based on the idea of eating an amount that's "good for you," it isn't much of a stretch for consumers to apply this idea to serving sizes, too," the HBSRG writes. This basic misunderstanding could lead to people consuming more than they otherwise would if serving sizes became larger.

The label will be easier to read:

Unless you're keen to count calories, the old nutrition facts label made it difficult to tell just how much you were eating at a glance. To remedy the problem, the FDA has proposed overhauling the design to make servings, calories, and daily values of various nutrients clearer. Both calories and serving sizes will appear in larger, bolded type, and the percent of daily values column has been moved to the left side to allow eaters easier scanning. (If you happen across a number higher than 25 percent, it's an automatic tip off that this food may not be a healthy choice.)

The FDA is also planning to insert a footnote that explains what "daily values" actually mean. The nutrition facts label currently carries the somewhat vague footnote: "Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs." To make things clearer, the FDA has proposed changing the footnote to read, "The percent daily value (%DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice." Yet this label still may not go far enough for shoppers who may make decisions in as little as one third of a second.

The FDA also proposed an "alternate format" for the label which categorizes nutrients into three categories: quick facts (including fat, carbs, sugars, and protein), "avoid too much" (saturated and trans fat, sodium, carbohydrates, and added sugars), and "get enough" (mostly vitamins and nutrients like fiber). The alternate format has gotten less press coverage than the main redesign, but comes closer to the simplified nutritional information championed by food advocates.

Nutritional Updates and Added Sugars:

Some important changes that easily slip under the radar of anyone who isn't a professional nutritionist are those that come from a modern understanding of a healthy diet. Daily values for sodium, dietary fiber, and Vitamin D will be updated and manufacturers will, for the first time, be required to list potassium and Vitamin D on labels. Vitamins A and C will be "included on a voluntary basis." These changes have less to do with the nutrients themselves than the types of deficiency-related diseases that are common in the United States. While most people get more than enough Vitamins A and C, segments of the population still suffer from high blood pressure (which can be reduced with higher potassium intake). Vitamin D deficiencies still cause rickets in children or osteoporosis in adults, among other health problems.

And since, as the FDA states, we now know that "the type of fat is more important than the amount" of fat, the general category "Calories from Fat" will be removed from the label — though total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat will continue to appear.

But the recent proposal to include "added sugars" in addition to total quantity of sugar on the nutrition facts label is easily the most controversial change suggested by the FDA. According to Kotwicki, the agency took this step because of a recommendation in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans "to reduce intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars." As critics have pointed out, naturally occurring and added sugars are physiologically indistinguishable. However, foods with high levels of natural sugars — like fruit or milk — are very different in overall nutrition from those with an abundance of added sugar — soda or cookies.

The nutrition facts label has been lumped into the category of things laypeople aren’t meant to understand.

Unsurprisingly, those most vehemently against this proposed change are groups like the American Bakers Association, the Sugar Association, and the cranberry industry (which relies on large quantities of sugar to combat the cranberry's tartness). In the latter example, juice brand Ocean Spray is encouraging its employees to write-in to the FDA, with a provided "sample letter" arguing that "the proposed FDA Rule places the viability of our multi-generational family farms in jeopardy." It asks for an exemption on behalf of all cranberry products to avoid "unintended negative consequences" toward the otherwise healthy fruit.

The last two decades have been transformational for American attitudes toward food. Awareness of diet-related diseases and rising obesity rates has increased, along with the popularity of local and organic foods. The nutrition facts label has, for too long, been lumped into the category of things laypeople aren't meant to understand. Finally, consumers and regulatory agencies alike are realizing that this information is something everyone should grasp.

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