Diabetes Forecast

Changes Are Coming to the Nutrition Facts Label

The Nutrition Facts label is changing. Here’s what to expect—and what it means for you

By Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE , ,
nutrition label cereal

Greg Larson/Mittera (photography); Haleigh Eason/Mittera (illustration)

If you’ve ever stared blankly at a nutrition label, unsure as to how certain aspects fit into your life, you’re not alone. Many a shopper has wondered about the relevance of calories from fat in their eating plans—and bemoaned unrealistic serving sizes.

That’s going to change. The current nutrition label is getting a makeover, and the new label, required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), should make it easier for you to make healthy choices.

Some companies have already made the changes, and you can find their updated labels displayed on store shelves now. Over the next few years, all labels will transition to adhere to the new guidelines. Read on to find out more about the changes, and what they mean for you.

Cutting Confusion

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was passed into law in 1990 and provided the FDA with the authority to require nutrition labeling on food packaging. The goal of this act was to help consumers make better food choices while reducing confusion about labels. Other than the addition of trans fats to the label in 2006, the nutrition label had remained virtually unchanged. The latest changes are based on updated scientific information, new nutrition and public health research, more recent dietary recommendations from expert groups, and input from the public.

Changes Ahead

The new Nutrition Facts label will change in five major ways.

1. Serving Size

For years, people have been pointing to unrealistic serving sizes on nutrition labels—portions smaller than the average American adult typically eats. The new label, however, will reflect servings of foods that you would realistically eat.

Nutrition experts embrace these changes. “Unrealistic serving sizes on the current label are one of the biggest teaching points in general, but especially for individuals with diabetes,” says Sacha Uelmen, RDN, CDE, director of nutrition at the American Diabetes Association. “Realistic serving sizes give a more accurate perception of the calorie and carbohydrate amount you are actually eating.” Consider this: On the current nutrition label, a serving of ice cream is ½ cup. That’s about 150 calories. But most Americans are eating more than that—without realizing the additional calories they’re consuming. A serving of ice cream on the new label is a more realistic 2/3 cup, which is 200 calories.

Registered dietitian Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE, still sees a need for more consumer education with the new serving sizes. “Consumers may be able to better relate to the new serving sizes and corresponding values,” she says. “However, some individuals with diabetes may now feel as though foods such as ice cream are harder to include in their meal plan when the new serving sizes show a higher calorie, carbohydrate, and fat content simply because the portion size has been increased.” This can be jarring to see, but remember that your favorite foods have not suddenly become higher in calories. The higher calorie count is simply a reflection of the change in portion size listed. By eating a smaller portion, you can still fit these foods into your meal plan as you had before.

2. Calories

The new label makes it easier to spot the calorie count with a larger type size.

3. Fats

A throwback to a time when fat—of any kind—was considered the enemy, Calories From Fat outlived its use, and you won’t spot it on the new label. “Research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount,” says Deborah Kotz, a spokesperson for the FDA. Lines noting Saturated Fat and Trans Fat remain. Replace these unhealthy fats with heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

4. Added Sugars

One of the most celebrated changes to the new nutrition label is a separate line for Added Sugars, which new dietary recommendations tell us to cut down on. This goes for everyone, whether they have diabetes or not. Added sugars have “empty” calories that crowd out calories from more nutritious foods and can lead to unwanted weight gain. In contrast, naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruits, come with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

“Current labels make it hard for consumers to identify if the sugar in a food is naturally occurring or added,” says Uelmen. “Being able to tell the difference with the new labels can help consumers make better decisions when it comes to food selection.”

Dobbins recommends looking to Total Carbohydrate first. “Then look at the added sugars to get a better sense of the type, or quality, of carbohydrate the food contains,” she says.

Keep added sugars as low as possible. “Work with your dietitian or diabetes educator to determine the right range for you,” says Uelmen.

5. Vitamins and Minerals

On current labels, vitamins A and C are included along with calcium and iron. But while the risk for deficiencies in those vitamins is now rare, other nutrient deficiencies are possible. Some people don’t get enough vitamin D and potassium, so the FDA now requires that these nutrients, along with calcium and iron, be declared on food labels.

The amount of potassium in a food is especially important information for people with diabetes. “Higher amounts can be beneficial to health and blood pressure, unless one has kidney disease,” says Uelmen. If you have kidney disease, ask your health care provider if you need to be careful about the amount of potassium in your diet.

Vitamin D, which plays a large role in bone health, is particularly important for people with type 1 diabetes, who have an increased risk of osteoporosis. “Many individuals with diabetes are deficient in vitamin D,” says Kari Ikemoto Exter, RD, CDE, a dietitian with Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Having specific quantities of vitamin D on the label will help to provide them with a more clear direction on how they can better meet their nutrient needs.”

The Timetable

When the FDA formally announced the first significant makeover of the nutrition label, it provided food manufacturers with a deadline of July 2018 to switch over to the new label, with smaller food manufacturers being given an extra year to comply. Recently, because food companies have said they need more time to make the changes, the FDA has proposed extending the deadline. Smaller food companies will be given additional time to comply with these deadlines to account for smaller budgets and resources available to them. While some updated labels are already on shelves, you can expect to see the rest in the next two to three years.



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