The Nutrition Facts label is now on more than 700,000 food products, providing information about serving sizes, calories, ingredients and nutritional content.
In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which required all packaged foods to have nutrition labeling. It also required all health claims for food be consistent with terms defined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services and terms. For example, “light” and “low fat” were defined and standardized. The Nutrition Facts label as we know it became mandatory in 1994. In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) amended the nutrition label to require that trans fat content be included by 2006.
The Nutrition Facts label is now on more than 700,000 food products, providing information about serving sizes, calories, ingredients and nutritional content. According to the latest research from the FDA, 77 percent of U.S. adults say they use the Nutrition Facts label at least some of the time to learn about the contents of their food products.
In May 2016, the FDA proposed a food label update to reflect the latest nutritional research and to enhance the label’s usefulness. Although large manufacturers have until January 2020 to comply with the new guidelines, many have already started putting the new Nutrition Facts label on their products.
Key changes to the new, improved label include:
Serving size must accurately reflect the portions we actually consume. For example, a 20-ounce soda will now be listed as a single serving, whereas before the nutrition label said there were 2 ½ servings in the bottle.
The new label will no longer list vitamins A or C because the latest research shows that most Americans are not deficient in these vitamins. Instead, vitamin D and potassium will be included.
The most significant change is that the new label will show how much added sugar is in the product, defined by “a caloric sweetener with no nutritional value.” This change reflects the latest research on the link between sugar and disease.
But even with the new, easier-to-read-and-understand Nutrition Facts label, do you know which information is most important to you?
For the most part, you can ignore any health claims on the front of the package. You’ll find the truth when you turn the product over and examine the Nutrition Facts label.
First, take a look at the calories. Pay attention to the serving size (now in bold print) because if you eat more than the amount listed, you’ll need to adjust the calories. In general, most people should eat less than 2,000 calories a day.
Next comes saturated fat. Your goal is to eat less than 20 grams of saturated fat per day. But an easier way to assess the saturated fat on the food label is to look at the percentage listed next to the grams. You want this number to be less than 5 percent. Try to replace foods that have high amounts of saturated fat with foods that have healthy fats, such as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.
Trans fat, although now banned from use in manufacturing, is still on the label. This number should be zero milligrams; no amount of trans fat is considered healthy.
For sodium, your daily total should be less than 2,300 milligrams. Choosing foods that have less than 300 milligrams of sodium per serving will help you stay within that goal.
Also look at the fiber listing. It’s important to get at least 28 grams of fiber daily.
The newest addition, added sugar, is next. Your daily goal is no more than 25 to 35 grams per day; the maximum for women and children is on the lower end of that.
What you don’t need to worry so much about on the food label is protein, cholesterol and total carbs. Dietary cholesterol is no longer a major concern. If you keep your saturated fat intake in check, you will be OK with your cholesterol intake. Almost everyone in the U.S. gets more than enough protein, so that information is probably only important if you are on a special diet. Total carb information isn’t particularly useful, either, unless you need to count carbs as part of a special diet. Total sugar is also of little benefit. Instead, pay attention to added sugar and fiber.
After you read the nutrition facts label, check the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight (not percentage), and the list must be complete. Generally, the first three ingredients are the most important and will give you a good sense of the product’s nutrition profile. Look for products that have simple ingredients and fewer ingredients overall.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.