The New Food Label:
What RDs Need to Know
By Jessica Levings, MS, RDN
Last week at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the release of the FDA’s final rule on the new Nutrition Facts label, which is used on virtually all packaged foods in the United States. According to the final rule, “Food Labeling: Revision of the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels,” most manufacturers have until July 26, 2018, to comply with the changes; manufacturers earning less than $10 million in annual food sales have until July 26, 2019, for compliance. Soon, dietitians can expect to start seeing the following changes on Nutrition Facts labels in the United States.
New to the Label
For the first time since packaged foods began bearing food labels, “Added Sugars” and % DV for added sugars must be labeled. Added sugars in grams per serving will appear on the label as “Includes XX g Added Sugars” indented directly below “Total Sugars.”
“We applaud the FDA’s efforts to better educate consumers and think this is an important step in providing clearer nutritional guidance to the general public,” says Stephanie Perruzza, MS, RD, CDN, at KIND Snacks. “An item that we feel is of particular importance is the FDA’s mandate to include added sugar labeling and percent Daily Value for added sugar on the Nutrition Facts Panel.” The new % DV for added sugars (50 g) reflects the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation of no more than 10% of total daily calories from added sugar.
Amy Loew, MS, RD, senior nutrition scientist at General Mills Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, agrees that the changes will help manufacturers more clearly provide product information, but added that time will be needed to fully assess the changes: “FDA’s recent announcement reinforces our longstanding commitment to providing clear nutrition information on our products, and to reducing overall sugar across our portfolio. General Mills has steadily reduced sugar in the food we make in the US for more than 10 years and has made significant strides, especially in yogurt and cereal, while maintaining the great taste that consumers demand. [The] announcement represents the biggest change in the nutrition label in 20 years, and it will take some time to fully assess.”
The FDA also established new DVs for infants through 12 months, children aged 1 to 3, and pregnant and lactating women to use as the basis for the % DV declaration on products marketed specifically to these subpopulations. For example, for foods such as baby cereal, puffs, purée meals, and other foods marketed to infants and children aged 3 and under, the % DV on labels will reflect nutrient intake recommendations specifically for this age group. Currently, all labeling is based on intake recommendations for adults and children aged 4 and older. In addition, vitamin D and potassium are replacing vitamins A and C as nutrients of public health significance and will now be mandatory on all labels. Vitamins A and C are no longer mandatory but can be declared voluntarily. According to Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, a food and nutrition consultant in Atlanta, “Potassium is really an undervalued nutrient beneficial in helping reduce the risk of high blood pressure. The addition of potassium to the food label will help consumers know how much of this important mineral is in foods, and help to identify foods higher in potassium.”
Modified from the Current Label
Many of the changes simply modify the way existing nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are declared. For example, “Sugars” will now be labeled as “Total Sugars” with “Added Sugars” listed below it. While calcium and iron will still be required on Nutrition Facts labels, the nutrients of public health significance will be labeled in the following order: vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium, along with the actual gram amount and % DV. When any other voluntary vitamin and mineral is declared it also must be labeled in actual amounts along with the % DV, instead of the current labeling of only the % DV.
Moreover, there will no longer be a “Calories from Fat” declaration. “Eliminating ‘Calories from Fat’ listed on the label is a long-awaited victory for the avocado, nut, and seafood industries and consumers alike,” says Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, a Phoenix-based retail health and wellness expert working as a consultant to commodity groups, food companies, and supermarkets. “For years now, scientific evidence has amassed to support the dietary recommendation that the type of fat, saturated vs polyunsaturated fats, is more important than the total amount of fat when weighing a food’s impact on health and disease prevention.”
Other changes include the declaration of “Servings per container” appearing directly above “Serving size” instead of directly below, and serving sizes are now being labeled in common household measures, such as “1 Cup,” and are right justified. To leave more space to better explain % DV declarations, FDA is no longer requiring the footnotes describing DVs for certain nutrients for 2,000- and 2,500-kcal diets. Instead, the new footnote will read “*The % Daily Value tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.” The font size for “Calories,” “Servings per container,” and “Serving size” will be larger, and the actual number of calories and the serving size declaration will be boldfaced.
Updated Reference Values Used to Determine % DV
The final rule also updates reference values used to determine DVs for several vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. Since the implementation of the original food label in 1993, several changes in nutrient recommendations have been released; these had not been reflected on the label, so the new label provides an update of these recommendations. The footnotes describing the DVs are no longer required on the label, but the % DVs based on the updated levels will still be listed for nutrients.
New DVs to Be Used as the Basis for % DV Calculations
|Nutrient||Adults and Children ≥ 4 years*||Adults and Children ≥ 4 years|
|Saturated fatty acids (g)||20||20|
|Total carbohydrate (g)||300||275|
|Dietary Fiber (g)||25||28|
|Added Sugars (g)||N/A||50|
|Vitamin D (mcg)**||400 IU (10 mcg)||20|
— Source: Adapted from the Food and Drug Administration’s Final Rule “Food Labeling: Revision of the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels,” pages 903–906, and “Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide (14. Appendix F: Calculate the Percent Daily Value for the Appropriate Nutrients).”
*The old DVs were based on Adults and Children ≥ 4 years old. The FDA’s final rule also set DVs specifically for foods marketed to infants through 12 months, children aged 1 to 3, and pregnant and lactating women. This means that the food label on foods marketed specifically to children aged 1 to 3, for example, will have % DVs specific to these age groups.
**The old label listed vitamin D in IUs. The new label requires listing vitamins and minerals in micrograms or milligrams. For vitamin D, IUs still may be voluntarily declared in parentheses behind the microgram amount.
The table above includes changes related to reference values for labeling mandatory nutrients. Moving forward, potassium won’t only appear on the food label, but the DV has increased from 3,500 mg to 4,700 mg. Some reference values related to certain voluntary nutrients also were changed. For example, the DV for Vitamin K increased from 80 mcg to 120 mcg for adults and children aged 4 and older. Dietitians can find more information in the tables on pages 902 to 906 of the final rule (https://s3.amazonaws.com/public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2016-11867.pdf).
Serving Sizes and Certain Package Sizes
Since the FDA is required by law to base serving size amounts on how much people actually eat, not on what they should be eating, serving sizes for some commonly consumed products have changed. For example, the reference amount for ice cream increased from 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup, and soda increased from 8 to 12 oz. Related package sizes between one and two servings that people typically eat in one sitting, such as a 15-oz can of soup, now will be labeled as one serving. Manufacturers of products such as pints of ice cream that could be consumed in one sitting but are larger than a single serving must now provide “dual column” labels indicating both “per serving” and “per package”/“per unit” amounts of calories and nutrients.
Recommendations and Considerations for Dietitians
According to the FDA, the intention of the food label isn’t to tell people what to eat, but to give them tools to make healthful choices. The purpose of these changes is to update nutrition information provided on food labels and assist consumers with maintaining healthful dietary practices. The new food label reflects an opportunity for nutrition professionals to speak with their clients and patients about using and understanding food labels, especially when addressing issues such as obesity and diabetes.
“Dietitians will have an important job in educating the public on the changes to the food label,” Ruhs says. “These revisions will reduce confusion by offering more relevant nutrition information to help consumers make healthier purchase decisions. The updated serving sizes will reflect more realistic consumption amounts, and the total calories listed in a larger size may raise awareness and help consumers reduce overconsumption,” Ruhs says.
For consumers seeking to understand the contribution of added sugars to their diets, the addition of added sugars on the label should assist them. However, it’s important to note that the “Total Sugars” declaration reflects what it says—the total amount of sugar in the product, which includes naturally occurring and added sugars. While the indentation of “Includes Added Sugars” underneath may look like an additional sugar declaration, it is not. While serving sizes and corresponding calorie declarations can help consumers keep track of the amount of calories they eat, they shouldn’t be used as a goal or recommended intake level.
These changes also highlight an opportunity for dietitians to counsel their clients about using the label to reduce intake of certain nutrients of public health concern, such as sodium and added sugars, and increase intake of beneficial minerals such as calcium and potassium.
Finally, dietitians can market their skills to food companies needing help creating the new labels. They can develop communications and marketing materials about the new label, help companies calculate and display the new changes, and discern whether current nutrient content claims will still be allowable given the new DVs. For example, products bearing “good” or “excellent source” nutrient content claims for calcium, potassium, and fiber may need to be reassessed since these DVs have increased. The FDA has stated that it will reevaluate regulations related to nutrient content claims in the near future.
The food label in its entirety is a tool all dietitians and consumers can use to purchase and eat more healthful foods. Hopefully the changes will have the intended effect, which is to help consumers maintain healthful dietary practices. By talking with clients and patients about navigating the new food label, dietitians can ensure that they do so.
— Jessica Levings, MS, RDN, is a freelance writer and owns Balanced Pantry, a consulting business helping companies develop and modify food labels, conduct recipe analysis, and create nutrition communications materials. Learn more at www.balancedpantry.com, Twitter @balancedpantry, and Facebook.com/Balancedpantry1.