The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed changes to the nutrition facts label that are based on nutrition and public health research during the past two decades.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed changes to the nutrition facts label that are based on nutrition and public health research during the past two decades. This will be the first major change to the nutrition label since it became mandatory for packaged foods in 1993. The goal is to make nutrition facts easier for consumers to understand and use in order to make informed decisions about the food they buy and consume.

The first change is simply improving visibility and decreasing confusion with the label, including:

Total calories and serving size will be displayed prominently with a larger font and bold type, designed to draw the consumer’s eye to this information.

The “% Daily Value” column will move from the right side of the label to the left side. This change is intended to help consumers understand that the numbers on the label reflect the percentage of a certain nutrient in the food in the context of a whole day.

It is proposed that the footnote listing values for certain nutrients based on calorie levels be removed and replaced with a simple, easy to understand explanation for the meaning of “% Daily Value.” Consumer research will be conducted during the proposal phase to evaluate various formats.

There will be dual columns on nutrition labels of foods that could be consumed either all at once or in multiple servings, thus eliminating the need for multiplication should the whole package be eaten at once. For example, a pint of ice cream will list the nutrition facts for a 1-cup serving and for the whole pint.

The “Calories from Fat” value will be removed. It was confusing for most consumers to have two sets of calories listed on a label. Current research shows that the types of fat are more relevant than overall calories from fat in influencing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Total fat, saturated fat and trans fat still will be listed.

“Total Carbohydrate” may be rephrased as “Total Carbs” due to the consensus that “carbs” is now considered a common term among consumers, as well as the desire to maximize space on the label.

The next set of changes involves updating serving sizes to reflect the most common amounts of foods eaten. This will be based on what the majority of the population actually eats for a serving, not on the recommended serving size. Ice cream, for example, will now list 1 cup as a serving size instead of the current half cup. Packaged foods typically eaten in one setting will be required to declare the nutrition information for the entire package. A candy bar, which currently lists two or more servings in a single package, or a 20-ounce soda, which currently lists a serving as 8 ounces and notes 2.5 servings per bottle, will now be regarded simply as a single serving.

Perhaps the biggest change is the addition of “added sugar.” This is in response to the realization that Americans eat too much sugar, which some experts believe is driving the obesity epidemic. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as well as the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization, all have made recommendations to limit added sugar intake, citing strong evidence that shows children and adults who drink sugar sweetened beverages have more body fat than those who don’t.

Adding this information to the nutrition facts label will allow people to easily distinguish natural sugars, such as those found in milk and fruit, from sugars that are added, such as corn syrup or dextrose. However, the current definition of added sugars is vague. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, added sugars are defined as the sugars and syrups added to foods during processing or preparation. Fruit juice concentrates, however, are a gray area. Some products are sweetened with juice concentrates that are highly processed, thus eliminating the fiber and vitamins that make fruit juice healthful. This leads some experts to the conclusion that fruit juice concentrates should be considered added sugars. A precise, accurate definition of added sugars is needed to avoid the potential misuse of sweeteners to make products appear more nutritious than they actually are.

A final set of changes to the nutrition facts panel relates to the labeled vitamin, mineral and other nutrients content. Declaration of potassium and vitamin D will be now be required; as these nutrients have been determined to be nutrients of “public health significance,” based on National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data. Calcium and iron content will continue to be required, while listings for vitamin A and vitamin C will become voluntary because deficiencies in these vitamins are rarely seen. Daily values for nutrients, like sodium, fiber and vitamin D, will be updated with current recommendations. The new sodium recommendation will decrease from the current 2,400 mg per day to 2,300 mg.

New nutrition label requirements may encourage manufacturers to reformulate products or develop new ones with healthier profiles. For example, in 2006 when trans fat information was required on the food label, manufacturers reformulated products to greatly reduce or eliminate the trans fat. The requirements also may promote nutrient fortification, especially of vitamin D and potassium because those values will be required on the new labels.

The proposed changes were submitted for a 90-day comment period, which ends June 2. Currently, the FDA is reviewing and refining the proposal. Once these changes are finalized and approved, manufacturers will have two years to fully comply.