Why U.S. nutrition labels will be getting a makeover

Nutrition Labels Get a (Much Needed) Makeover

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The Nutrition Facts Panel on the side of your cereal box is getting a makeover -- finally. Last week, the FDA sent a list of proposed changes to the White House that will hopefully make nutrition labels more useful and straightforward for consumers in the near future. Although the recommended revisions haven't been made public yet, and there's no set timeline for when new labels will go into effect, we're told that revamping nutrition labels is one of the FDA's top priorities for this year.

I, like many other nutritionists and health experts, am eager for change. After all, nutrition science has advanced considerably since the government made our current nutrition labels mandatory 21 years ago.

While we don't know yet what shape the new-and-improved labels will take, here are a few updates that I hope to see. If we're smart about this, we can make choosing healthy foods a whole lot easier for the public.

  • Wipe Out "Calories From Fat":The "Calories From Fat" line you see directly below the calorie content is a relic of the fat-phobic 1990s, when all fats were considered evil. Almonds, for example, provide 140 calories from fat in a 180-calorie serving, but we now know that unsaturated fats, the predominant type of fat in nuts, is heart-healthy and definitely not something to shy away from. While it's still important to limit certain types of fat -- namely the saturated and trans types -- monitoring TOTAL fat (which is what is reflected in the Calories From Fat figure) isn't a priority. So let's just lose that entirely.
  • Get Real About Serving Sizes:Ever notice how a single, 20-ounce bottle of Coke has 2.5 servings? Or a large, individually-wrapped cookie has not one, but two or even three servings? If not, that's the point. Food companies can get away with making foods seem less caloric and junky by manipulating the servings per container. If a food or drink is likely to be consumed in a single eating occasion, the calories should ALWAYS be listed for the entire package, so you can make a well-informed decision. We shouldn't expect consumers to do calorie math on the fly in order to know what they're eating. And while we're on the subject, the portion size and calories per serving should be listed big-and-bold on the front of the package, not just buried in fine print on the side of the box.
  • Add "Added Sugar":The current label lists only "Total Sugar", which is a combination of "added" and "natural" sugars. Most of the sugar in packaged foods is added sugar, in the form of sucrose, corn syrup, fructose, and other sweeteners added to processed foods, and this is the type of sugar we need to limit in our diet. Products that contain fruit or dairy also contain some "natural sugar," which comes packaged with other nutrients and is much less worrisome. If manufacturers are required to list "added sugar" on the label, you'll be able to tell, for example, how much sugar in your raisin bran is actually coming from fruit (raisins) and how much is added for extra sweetness...so companies can't hide behind the numbers any longer.
  • Color Code:Let's make it easier for consumers to zero in on the nutrients they should reduce in their diet by coloring the saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugar lines red. This will cue shoppers to compare packaged foods based on these four "nutrients to limit" and choose the brand that has a healthier profile.

Which changes would make choosing healthy foods easier for you?

Last Updated:1/28/2014
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