Nutrition Counseling

Lowdown on the New Nutrition Facts Label

As many RDs know, the Nutrition Facts label is getting a makeover. In 2016, the FDA published its final rule about a new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. Changes to the panel include a larger font size for calories and serving sizes, a new category for added sugars, and updated daily recommendations for fiber and sodium.

The new label design is being rolled out slowly, so, from now until July 2021, your clients can expect to see the old label on some food products and the new one on others. Food companies with $10 million or more in annual sales were required to comply with the new regulations by January 2020, while manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual sales get an extra year to implement the updates. Producers of honey, maple syrup, and other single-ingredient sugars have until July 1, 2021, to make the switch.

According to the FDA, the new design reflects current scientific information, including the link between diet and obesity, heart disease, and other chronic diseases, and is aimed at empowering consumers to eat better. Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RDN, CDN, author of the newly revised Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table says, “The new label is really big breaking news, because the Nutrition Facts panel hasn’t had a major overhaul since 1990. I hope that consumers will flip their packages over and take a look at the label, because there’s really so much information there to guide them toward healthier food choices. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming.”

Below are five aspects of the new Nutrition Facts label to share with and explain to your clients. 

1. Bigger, Bolder Calories: Consumers won’t need their reading glasses anymore to spot the caloric content on packaged foods. The calories per serving now will be significantly larger and bolder, making it easier to find and read on the label. While 2,000 kcal per day still will be used as a guide for general nutrition advice, “calories from fat” and their percentage of the DV no longer will be listed. That’s because, according to the FDA, the caloric contribution from fat isn’t as important as the type of fat (eg, saturated, mono- and polyunsaturated, or trans fats) consumed.

2. Updated Serving Sizes: As with calories, the serving size and servings per container will be more prominent. And serving sizes will be updated to reflect what consumers actually eat and drink. It’s important to note that the serving sizes aren’t recommendations—no one, for example, is telling your clients to drink an 8-oz soft drink or a 3/4-cup portion of ice cream—but the updated serving sizes are a more accurate reflection of what people typically consume. “Even though these are more realistic serving sizes,” Taub-Dix says, “it doesn’t mean that it’s realistic for your clients. It’s important to look at the suggested serving size on the label, compare it to what you’re actually eating, and then multiply all numbers accordingly.”

Clients also may notice a change on the labels of their favorite ready-to-eat cereal. In some cases, serving sizes have increased from 1 cup to 1 1/2 cups.

Amy Cohn, RD, CDM, CFPP, nutrition and external affairs manager at Big G Cereal, part of General Mills, says, “The ‘Reference Amount Customarily Consumed’ (RACC) went up in cereal, meaning—yes—people are pouring more in their bowl than they used to. The law requires food labels to accurately represent what most Americans actually eat, so as part of the Nutrition Facts panel update, cereal’s RACC went up. So what used to be in a 30 g RACC in lighter-weight cereals (like Cheerios) is now in a 40 g RACC. And what used to be in a 55 g RACC in heavier-weight cereals (like Raisin Nut Bran) is now in a 60 g RACC. The nutrition information will appear differently because the serving sizes are now bigger. In some cases, it may appear there’s more sugar, but it’s important to note the recipe of your favorite cereals didn’t necessarily change.”

3. Mandated Declaration of Added Sugars and % DV: Consumers finally will be able to differentiate between the amount of added sugars in a product and the sugar that’s present naturally. The label now will list the grams of total sugars as well as the grams of added sugars and their % DV.

To help your clients calculate the amount of naturally occurring sugars vs those that are added during processing, instruct them to subtract the “added sugars” from the “total sugars.” For example, if a grab-and-go snack bar contains 8 g total sugars and 6 g added sugars, the amount of natural sugar would be calculated to 2 g.

Taub-Dix suggests taking one more step when finding sugar on a label: “For clients concerned about sugar, it’s also important to scoot down to the list of ingredients, because sugar is the master of disguise, and it’s not always spelled ‘s-u-g-a-r.’ Sugar aliases can include high fructose corn syrup, organic cane juice, and dextrose.”

Also worth noting is the % DV for added sugars. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 10% of daily calories from added sugars. On that grab-and-go snack bar label, next to the 6 g of added sugars, consumers would see that 6 g equals 12% DV, making it easier for them to see whether they’re exceeding recommendations.

With greater attention to added sugars, manufacturers are innovating new ways to reduce it without compromising taste. “General Mills has steadily reduced sugar in the food we make in the US for more than 10 years and has made significant strides, especially in yogurt and cereal, while maintaining the great taste that consumers demand,” Cohn says. “One of the steps we’ve taken to reduce sugar in our cereals over the last decade includes moving the sugar to the outside of the cereal, so the recipe calls for less sugar overall, but the remaining sugar is still perceived by the taste buds.”

4. Updated Nutrients of Public Health Significance: Before the new labeling rules, manufacturers were required to list calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C. The new label still requires calcium and iron, but vitamins A and C are no longer required because deficiencies are rare. (Companies can choose to disclose vitamin A and C voluntarily.) On the updated label, the amount in milligrams or micrograms and the % DV will be listed for calcium, iron, and newcomers vitamin D and potassium.

Calcium, vitamin, D, iron, and potassium play an important role in reducing risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and anemia, though consumers still struggle to consume the recommended amounts.

“By flagging the amounts and % Daily Value for these so-called shortfall nutrients, consumers will be able to identify the best food sources and adjust their diets accordingly,” Taub-Dix says.

Some manufacturers are responding by changing their fortifications. Cohn explains that, before the rules for the new labels were implemented, the DV for vitamin D was 400 IU (10 mcg) but now is 800 IU (20 mcg).  “So, although we currently are still fortifying at 10% of the DV, we are fortifying at higher levels because the DV for vitamin D went up. And we plan to do more,” she says. “With 95% of all Americans 2 years and older not meeting the vitamin D recommendations and with vitamin D being called out as a nutrient of public health concern by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we are committed to increasing levels of vitamin D in our cereals in the future.”

5. Updated DVs for Fiber and Sodium: Based on the most recent science, the DVs for fiber and sodium are changing. The DV for dietary fiber has increased from 25 g to 28 g, while the daily limit for sodium has decreased from 2,400 mg to 2,300 mg. Taub-Dix says that, while consumers should pay attention to their use of salt in cooking and at the table, certain packaged foods may be a bigger culprit. “Most of the salt that we get in our diets does not come from the saltshaker, but instead comes from breads, pastries, and highly processed and packaged foods. This brings us back to the food label and its power to guide consumers to healthier food choices.”

As you help your clients understand the Nutrition Facts label changes in order to make more healthful food choices, Cohn offers this final thought: “While many nutritious foods come with super high price tags for buzzworthy ingredients and limited retail availability, they are most certainly not accessible to all. We’re always here to spread the word that good nutrition isn’t nutritious if it isn’t eaten and affordable.”

— Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, is a mom of two with a specialty in family nutrition. She’s the voice behind the family food podcast Liz’s Healthy Table, and the blog and website by the same name. Liz has written several cookbooks, including No Whine With Dinner: 150 Healthy Kid-Tested Recipes From the Meal Makeover Moms, The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers: Improving the Way Your Family Eats, One Meal at a Time!, and the playful new coloring book series Color, Cook, Eat!. Liz hosts the Meal Makeovers video series for CNN Accent Health, which runs in doctor’s offices nationwide.

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