New Year, New Nutrition Facts Label - Public Goods

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New Year, New Nutrition Facts Label

If you have bought a food or beverage recently, you might have noticed that the food label on that item looks different.

nutrition facts label on a cereal box

That change is because, as of January 1, 2020, most food manufacturers have been required to use the new nutrition facts label that was finalized back in 2016.

The nutrition facts label makeover was long overdue. Extensive changes to the label have not occurred since 1993. The food industry has changed dramatically, as have consumer choices, food preferences, and health conditions all warranting a much-needed update to the information we see on food and beverage packages.

One aspect that did not change with the new food labels is the reason they were created in the first place. They are still intended to help consumers make informed choices about the foods and beverages they are purchasing, but the new food labels do intend to make those choices easier and simpler.

After years of work thinking about how to update the food label and after a public comment period that garnered over 100,000 responses, the Food and Drug Administration settled on an overhaul that included minor and major changes. The refreshed label features updates to the design, to nutrition information provided, and the removal and addition of certain nutrients. All the changes are intended to reflect what consumers are or should be consuming.

original nutrition facts label vs new nutrition facts label

Redesign of the Nutrition Facts Label

The old nutrition facts label maintained the same font size and regular text throughout, but the new label intends to bring several pieces of information to a consumer’s attention by increasing font size and bolding certain aspects of the label. Serving size and servings per container were also rearranged, and the number of calories per serving became more prominent. The footnote was also updated to better explain “Daily Value.”

Out with the Old, In With the New

The old label included a “calories from fat” line, but that information was removed in the new label. The reason for this modification is that research has shown that the type of fat — saturated versus unsaturated fat — is more important than the total amount of fat a food contains.

Under the old labels, a food high in unsaturated fats, such as nuts or avocados, would have had a large number of calories from fat. Based on this data, consumers might have concluded that something like an avocado was actually unhealthy.

The biggest change on the label that garnered the most attention was the addition of the added sugars line. Public health advocates applauded this addition because added sugars are overconsumed in the American diet. The daily value assigned to the added sugars line reflects the recommendation from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: to consume no more than 10% of total daily calories from added sugar.

The new labels also use updated Daily Values (DVs) for macronutrients and several vitamins and minerals such as sodium, dietary fiber, fat, total carbohydrates and calcium. Previously, the labels had Daily Values for adults and children ages four and older. The new labels set Daily Values specifically for different populations, including infants through 12 months, children ages 1-3 years old, and pregnant and lactating women. If a food is marketed specifically to children, it will have Daily Values specific for that age range.

Serving size information was also updated to reflect common units of measure that consumers are familiar with and can understand such as cups, instead of grams. This line was also updated to more accurately reflect consumption patterns.

For example, it may not be realistic to think consumers would eat five potato chips. The serving size was updated to reflect how many chips someone would actually be consuming.

Nutrients of Public Health Significance

The old nutrition facts label included Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Iron and Calcium while the new label includes Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron and Potassium. When Vitamin A and Vitamin C were included in the previous food label, it was because these were vitamins that we did not get enough of.

Now, as eating patterns and lifestyles shift, these are no longer nutrients of concern and do not have to be included on food labels. Instead Vitamin D and Potassium were added because, as you can guess, these are nutrients many Americans do not get enough of and are beneficial for their health.

It is estimated that approximately one billion people in the world have Vitamin D deficiency that can lead to osteoporosis in adults or rickets in children. Providing information about the Vitamin D content in a food is one way we can possibly reduce Vitamin D deficiency.

Consumers will note that Vitamin D is listed in milligrams, although it is usually measured in International Units (IUs). Food manufacturers may choose to include IUs as well.

Listing potassium as a nutrient on the food label is good for several reasons. It is a beneficial nutrient and has been shown to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Although potassium deficiency, also known as hypokalemia, is rare among otherwise healthy people, it can affect those who are hospitalized or taking certain medications. It is also important that potassium is listed for those who would need to minimize their potassium intake due to chronic kidney disease or because of medications someone may be taking. As always, if you are concerned about how much or how little potassium you should be consuming, consult with your medical doctor or registered dietitian.

What Research Says about the New Food Labels

With a refreshed design, some added elements and changes to what information is included, the food labels may not only have an impact on consumer purchasing decisions, but they may have an impact on public health and chronic diseases as well.

Research examining the impact of the added sugars line shows that between 2018 and 2037, exposure to this data point would prevent over 350,000 cases of cardiovascular disease and almost 600,000 cases of type 2 diabetes. This reduction could save an estimated $31 billion in net healthcare costs.

Scientists also concluded that the new nutrition facts label changes would lead to possible reformulation of foods that may have additional impacts on preventing or postponing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as additional healthcare cost savings.

There are some public health nutrition advocates and groups applauding the changes, while some critics state that they do not go far enough to impact health. The changes are one piece of the nutrition puzzle aimed at improving the health of Americans. They provide a good opportunity to better inform consumers about what they are purchasing, and the hope is that this knowledge will translate into healthier choices.

I look forward to seeing the research on the actual impact the nutrition facts label changes make, and I hope we do not have to wait another three decades for additional changes or updates.

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