The New Nutrition Label

Soon it will be much easier to tell whether a packaged food or beverage is actually healthy. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a major overhaul of the Nutrition Facts panel for the first time since it began requiring it on food labels in 1996. If these changes are approved, the revamped Nutrition Facts will convey accurate, straightforward health information that pertains to how we actually eat and drink and which nutrients we really need–a big improvement over the confusing, out-of-date cryptogram we see today.

The first major change is serving sizes will become much more realistic. In the current Nutrition Facts panels, you'll often see obscure, small serving sizes such as "one-half of a cookie" or "6 fluid ounces" for a 20-ounce bottle of juice. These are misleading – and just plain dumb – because you rarely eat only half a cookie or take just a few swigs of a 20-ouncer. In reality, you consume multiple "serving sizes" in one sitting, which means you get double, or even triple, the calories, sugar, fat, and everything else.

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With the new Nutrition Facts, a serving size will be the entire cookie or the entire bottle, so you can glance at the panel and easily see what you'll actually consume, without having to do math. For larger items that you eat in multiple sittings or share with others, like a carton of milk or a frozen pizza, there will be dual Nutrition Facts panels, one with nutrition info per serving and the other one per container, making it even clearer what you're eating.

Second, the Nutrition Facts panel must now disclose how much added sugar is in a product, rather than just listing total sugar content like it does now. Separating out added sugar from naturally occurring sugar (from fruit and dairy ingredients) will be a huge help in determining whether a food is healthy or just sugar-packed junk. Research shows that most Americans eat way too much added sugar – in soda, candy, pastries, even white bread and barbecue sauce – which is causing widespread obesity, heart problems, and even early deaths. 

Next on the chopping block is "calories from fat," currently listed right after the total calories. The FDA realized that this info is confusing and not really necessary, because research now shows that the type of fat – saturated, unsaturated, trans – is far more important than the amount. In the new format, total calories will be displayed in larger type to stand out better (another nice perk), and fat tallies will fall right below it. You'll see total fat presented both in grams and in percent daily value (how much of your daily target intake this food provides). Then, under total fat, the different types of fat will be broken out, also in grams and percent daily values.

The new Nutrition Facts will also emphasize different individual nutrients than the current panel does. You'll still see iron and calcium (amount and percent daily values), but manufacturers will also be required to list vitamin D and potassium – two nutrients that are crucial to good health and severely lacking in many Americans' diets. The idea is that you'll be able to scan the panel and tell whether a food or beverage is a good source of these key nutrients.

Companies will no longer be mandated to list vitamins A and C (although they can if they want), because most of us manage to get enough of these vitamins, according to the FDA. Also say goodbye to that long, confusing footnote at the bottom of the current panel, which attempts to explain percent daily values but fails. The FDA acknowledges that this section is wordy and perplexing and plans to replace it with a much-simpler, briefer statement about percent daily values.

These Nutrition Facts changes aren't yet a done deal, but they likely will be soon. The FDA is taking public commentary – suggestions for improvements, criticisms, etc. – until the end of May and then moving forward with a final rule. Food and beverage manufacturers will then have two years to comply with the new panels. But as per usual with new FDA rulings, most manufacturers will jump on the changes immediately to stay ahead of the game. So you could start seeing the new Nutrition Facts as soon as this summer.