The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) mandated nutrition labeling on most packaged foods. These include canned and frozen foods, breads, cereals, desserts, snacks, beverages, and a variety of other foods that line the aisles of grocery stores. Food labels — officially called Nutrition Facts labels — are intended to help consumers choose healthy foods. It is the FDA’s responsibility to make sure that foods are properly labeled.
Over the years there have been many changes to the initial law, and to the label. The newest version of the food label rolled out on January 1, 2020 for larger food manufacturers; smaller manufacturers have until January 1, 2021 to introduce the new labels.
Here’s a rundown of features you’ll encounter on the new food labels.
The new food label shows “servings per container” and “serving size” in a larger font size and a bolder type. Per the NLEA, serving sizes must be based on the Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACCs) — that is, the amounts that people are actually eating, not what recommendations suggest they should be eating. The amounts that people eat and drink have changed since 1993, when the previous serving size requirements were published. For example, in 1993 the reference amount used for a serving of soda was 8 ounces; it will now be 12 ounces. A serving of ice cream has also increased, from 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup.
For packages that are between one and two servings, such as a 15-ounce can of soup, the label will now treat the package as a single serving, since people usually consume it at one time.
Certain foods and beverages that are larger than a single serving but could be eaten in one sitting will now display two columns: one showing calories and other nutrients per serving, the other showing the same information for the entire package.
Calories will now be displayed much more prominently on the label. But you’ll no longer see “calories from fat” on the food label, since research has shown that the type of fat in a food is more important than the amount of fat.
One of the biggest changes is that the new food labels will specify the amount of added sugar — sugars that are added during food processing. Added sugars are a bigger concern than natural sugars, which occur naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates, including fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy products.
Research shows that it is difficult to meet nutritional needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10% of your total daily calories from added sugar (added sugars will appear on the label in both grams and percent daily value). Too much added sugar can also lead to weight gain and other health problems, including diabetes and heart disease.
The FDA definition of fiber, which is used as a guideline for what appears on food labels, includes both naturally occurring fibers and fibers added to foods that show a physiological health benefit. Fiber is naturally present in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, cereal bran, flaked cereal, and flours. In addition, some nondigestible carbohydrates that are added to food also meet the FDA’s definition of dietary fiber, and are accounted for in the dietary fiber value on the new food label.
Nutrients and daily values
The list of nutrients that appear on the food label has been updated. Vitamin D and potassium will now be required; vitamins A and C will no longer be required, since deficiencies of these vitamins are rare today. Calcium and iron will continue to be required. Manufacturers must declare the actual amount, in addition to percent daily value, of vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. In the old food label, manufacturers only needed to include percent daily value of these nutrients.
Daily values are reference amount of nutrients to consume or not to exceed, and are used to calculate the daily value percentages on the label. This can help the consumer use the nutrition information in the context of a total daily diet. They are based on 2,000 calories, which is a reference number of calories for general advice. Individuals may need less or more than 2,000 calories per day depending upon their specific needs.
The daily values for nutrients like fiber, sodium, vitamin D, and potassium have all been updated based on the most recent research from the Institute of Medicine, and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report used in the development of the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
With its more realistic measure of serving size and emphasis on calories and added sugars, the new food label has the potential to help consumers make healthier food choices.