What You Need to Know About the Latest Update to U.S. Nutrition Labels

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that the U.S. nutrition label was about to have a glow up. Two years later, the new label is only on about 10 percent of packaged foods—but it’s about to become a lot more widespread. The FDA recently announced that by 2021, all packaged food companies will be required to use the updated label. If you need a refresher on what’s different and how you should read the food label, here’s the SparkNotes version.

It makes room for nutrients Americans are deficient in.

Vitamins A and C are out and vitamin D and potassium are in. Why? Based on recent data, Americans’ diets are solid when it comes to A and C but lacking in D and potassium. It pays to stay aware of both. While a lot of people fixate on calcium for promoting bone health, getting enough vitamin D is important too, says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D., owner of Nutrition à la Natalie. “Most people are deficient in vitamin D regardless of their diet because it’s not in a lot of food,” she says. “It’s in eggs and mushrooms but most people get it from the sun. We don’t always see the sun during some parts of the year and different skin types absorb it differently.” (FTR, no, you shouldn’t skip sunscreen to get more vitamin D.)

Overall, we’re less deficient in potassium than vitamin D, but it’s still a major area of concern. The FDA recommends that women aged 19 to 50 get at least 4700mg of potassium a day—but, on average, the group is only consuming about half that. Getting adequate potassium has been linked to improved heart health, says Rizzo. To up your potassium intake, reach for oranges, sweet potatoes, carrots, and bananas. (Which, to be fair, don’t have nutrition labels anyway.)

Photo: FDA

It differentiates natural sugars and added sugars.

The new label lists added sugars per serving in addition to total sugars per serving, which is a change the FDA proposed back in 2015. “I think pointing out added sugar is one of the best things that they’re doing because sugars are super confusing,” says Rizzo. “For instance, yogurt inherently has natural sugar in it, which is lactose. So if you’re eating a plain yogurt, it’s going to have sugar in it but it should have zero grams of added sugar. Whereas if you’re eating a flavored yogurt, it could have 10 grams of added sugar.” Added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar lack nutritional value while natural sugars—like those in the plain yogurt—are often come with fiber, potassium, and other key nutrients. On the old label, the two were lumped together under total sugars, even though added sugars are the ones worth worrying about. (For example, the sugar from a banana and from a doughnut are entirely different.)

FYI, the USDA recommends getting no more than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugars. That means if you eat 1,500 calories a day, you shouldn’t surpass 150 calories from sugar—about 3 tablespoons. According to a 2017 USDA report, 42 percent of Americans are limiting their added sugars enough to stay below the recommended intake. (Hooray!)

It’s designed to show the difference between serving size and portion size.

Finally, the change that drew the most attention: Calorie count now has an aggressive bolded placement and serving size is bold as well. Why? “We thought it was important to better highlight these numbers because nearly 40 percent of American adults are obese, and obesity is associated with heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, and diabetes,” wrote the FDA in a statement.

Besides getting a more prominent spot, the serving sizes themselves will be tweaked, according to the FDA. A label always shows nutrition specs based on one serving, regardless of whether a typical portion is actually more. That can be misleading if you polish off a bag of chips without realizing that it’s multiple servings. The hope is that the new label will bridge the gap between the two by including updated serving sizes that reflect the amount that people actually eat.

The emphasis on calories and serving size is a double-edged sword. Making serving sizes more realistic will cut back on confusion, says Rizzo. But on the other hand, the new label could also make people consider calories over everything else, she adds. “People tend to get hyperfocused on numbers that are not always as important,” Rizzo says. “An avocado has so many vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats, but it’s pretty high in calories. If you’re only looking at the calories, then you may be missing out on other nutrients.” (See: The #1 Reason to Stop Counting Calories)

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