Here's What's Changing on Nutrition Facts Labels

'Calories From Fat' is likely out; 'Added Sugar' is in.

U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama unveils proposed updates to nutrition facts labels during remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 27. (Photo: Jonathan Erns/Reuters)

Feb 27, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

For those who have rolled their eyes at the serving size listed on the back of a package of Samoas sold by innocent little Girl Scouts (it’s only two), or pretended not to notice that the serving size for Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream was a tiny half cup—portion sizes on nutritional panels are about to get real.

Public health officials and nutritionists across the country are cheering this morning’s news that the Food and Drug Administration will be updating the familiar Nutrition Facts panel that appears on nearly 700,000 packaged food items. The move is significant: It will be the first substantial update since the panel was introduced 20 years ago.

Realistic serving sizes are just one notable change. Food makers will be required to list “added sugars"; items that are typically eaten in one sitting will be labeled as a single serving; and the agency will redesign the panel using a larger font for the calorie listing, making it easier for consumers to see just how much they're eating.

(Design by Lauren Wade)

The FDA said changes to serving size requirements will soon reflect how people eat and drink today, rather than in the early 1990s when serving sizes were first established.

"By law, the label information on serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what people 'should' be eating,” said the FDA in a media statement.

What took so long?

Nutrition expert Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, tells TakePart the label isn’t easy to revise.

Some of the credit for getting it through bureaucratic gridlock belongs to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary this week, for finally getting it off the ground, Nestle said.

Is it good news for consumers, including those not in the habit of reviewing those panels before they eat?

“Obviously, if people don’t look at the Nutrition Facts panel, the issue is moot, but even if they just give it a passing glance, they will see the calories. The label should make it easier for everyone to know what’s in those mysterious packages,” she says.

Nestle says the most important changes being proposed are prominent calorie displays and added sugar requirements—which advocates have been rallying for, for years.

Not everyone is pleased by the announcement. The FDA estimates the changes will cost the food industry $2 billion, and it could take more than two years before consumers will see changes at the supermarket.

“It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science,” said Pam Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in a statement. “Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers."

Food watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest gives the proposed FDA changes mostly high marks—especially in the areas of calorie counts, serving sizes, and added sugar information.

But a fight is expected over whether the FDA will define a "daily value" for added sugars that lines up with its current recommendation of about six teaspoons a day, far less than the 23 teaspoons it says the average American consumes today, said center Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson.

Other proposed changes include adding potassium and vitamin D information to the panel and revising daily values for a variety of nutrients, including calcium and dietary fiber. For some foods, dual column labels that reflect “per serving” and “per package” calories and nutrition information will be required.

That includes 20-ounce sodas, which are sometimes listed as 2.5 servings. “Calories From Fat” will likely be removed from panels.

“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” said Michelle Obama.

Want to add your voice to the conversation? The FDA’s proposal will be open for public comment for the next 90 days.