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Why new food labels will help in some ways, but not others

You may or may not read the labels on the foods you eat. Regardless, the Nutrition Facts label could have some big changes ahead that will make reading it a bit easier — for some people.

What are the changes?

First lady Michelle Obama is partnering with the FDA to make several label changes to combat our rising obesity epidemic. The changes include:

  • Putting calories front and center and in large type to put a greater focus on calorie content
  • Including “added sugars” on the label to help consumers differentiate between naturally occurring sugars and the empty calories of added ones
  • Emphasizing different nutrients (Vitamin D and potassium instead of Vitamins C and A
  • Eliminating the “Calories from Fat” label
  • Shifting the “% Daily Value” (%DV) from the right to left column
  • Changing the serving size reference amounts to reflect common current consumption

Nutrition Labels

A dietitian’s opinion

As a dietitian, I see a lot of patients who don’t pay attention to food labels and find them confusing. I try to be very mindful of the information I give to patients so that it makes sense and gives them direction to take the next step with their health. While I see some benefits to these changes, I also have concerns.

On the positive side, putting calories and number of servings per container in a larger type is a great idea! Hopefully, it will encourage people to actually look at the label and maybe rethink what they eat. I also agree with the idea of taking away “Calories from Fat” on the label — this just hasn’t been a very helpful reference for most of us.

My concerns, however, stem from the new placement of the Percent Daily Value (%DV), and the changing of the Serving Size reference amounts. Many people get confused by %DV and what it means, so probably the best thing to know is that %DV is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Not everybody needs 2,000 calories per day for a healthy diet, however, so these numbers don’t always apply. Placing the %DV in the first column gives it too much importance.

My tip: When you look at a label, focus on the actual gram amounts of nutrients that are important for your own personal health, whether that’s fiber, fat, cholesterol or some other nutrient.

The impact of changing serving sizes

But the biggest worry I have is about the change in serving sizes. The FDA states that serving size reference amounts should be updated from previous standards to “reflect how much people typically eat at one time.” But wait a minute, aren’t we trying to combat an obesity epidemic? Look up “bagel serving size” on Google Images and you’ll see what a standard bagel looked like 20 years ago and what’s considered normal nowadays. It’s nearly twice as large and more than double the calories! People will think that the larger serving sizes are what they “should” be eating and could eat even more. Why would we change serving sizes on the food label to make the larger amounts more acceptable?

The food label has never been a perfect tool to help us make decisions about what we do or don’t eat. It has always required some extra knowledge or education about how to use it best for our own individual health goals. I think the new food label may help in some ways, but still won’t be a great tool for everyone. My advice (no surprise) is to consult with a dietitian if you have questions specific to your own health and reading food labels.