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  • At Last: Food Labels We Can Understand!

At Last: Food Labels We Can Understand!

by Susan Burke March - March 03, 2014 - with 0 Comments


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At Last: Food Labels We Can Understand!

By examining food labels carefully, you should be able to choose your packaged foods more wisely. However, it’s always annoyed us that the nutrition labels are so darn tough to mentally digest.

Confusion may soon be giving way to clarity – if food makers and our legislators are able to agree on the new labeling laws proposed by the Food & Drug Administration.

Labels have been in use since the 1860s, when foods were routinely contaminated with chemical preservatives, milk was unpasteurized and unrefrigerated foods often spoiled and sickened thousands. It’s somewhat hard to swallow but food labels only became mandatory in America in 1992.

That’s when the first Nutrition Facts Panel appeared, showing per-serving nutritional information. But the label has not changed significantly since 2006 when information on trans fat had to be declared on the label. That move prompted manufacturers to reduce partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of trans fat, in many of their products.

The FDA says its redesigned panel is designed to help consumers better understand the nutritional value of foods so they can make healthier choices for themselves and their families.

Not So Sweet

One of the most significant changes is in the way the label displays information about sugar.

The label now groups all carbohydrate into one line – with sugars appearing in the breakdown. However, you couldn’t tell from that information whether the food product had naturally occurring sugar, such as the sugar found in dairy products (lactose), or the sugar found in fruit products, such as juice (fructose).

If you wanted to enjoy a food without added sugar, you were pretty much left in the dark. The proposed label would spell out total carbohydrate, and then breaks out the type of carbohydrate – fiber, naturally-occurring sugars, and added sugar.

It is possible to determine if a food product has added sugar by checking the ingredients. The terms used for added sugar include brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, syrup and table sugar.

The proposed Nutrition Facts Label also:

• Updates serving size requirements to reflect the amounts people currently eat. You used to have to check both the serving size (the amount for one serving) and the number of servings in the package and then compare your portion size (the amount you actually eat) to the serving size listed on the panel. If the serving size is one cup and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the calories, fat and other nutrients listed on the label. Ever notice that a 20-ounce bottle of pop looks like it contains only about 100 calories? Read closer and see that an 8-ounce serving contains 100 calories, but the bottle’s 20 ounces translates to about 240 calories! 

• Adds a new “dual column” format that shows calorie and nutrition information “per serving” and “per package.”

• Displays Vitamin D and potassium. Vitamin D is important for its role in bone health. Potassium is beneficial in lowering blood pressure.

• Reflects the knowledge that some fats are beneficial but some are really bad for you. “Calories from Fat” would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount of fat. The label will continue to list Total Fat, Saturated Fat, and Trans Fat on the label so consumers can make educated choices.

• Reformats the calories listing so it jumps out in larger, bolded numbers. Serving sizes and Percent Daily Value are also more prominently displayed. These numbers are important in addressing current public health problems such as obesity and heart disease. The Percent Daily Value on the Nutrition Facts label is a guide to the nutrients in one serving of food and helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.

Although it’s not officially proposed yet, we’d like to join the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in requesting that the FDA include a daily value of 25 grams for added sugars. For example, the Nutrition Facts label for a 16.9-ounce bottle of soda would indicate that its 58 grams of added sugars represents 230% of the Daily Value! This info may give more people a reason to pause before “refreshing” themselves with a super-sugary brew. 

CNN notes that a USDA study released last month showed 42% of working-age adults between 29 and 68 looked at Nutrition Facts labels most or all of the time when shopping. Some 57% of Americans who are older than 68 did so as well. That's up from 2007, when only 34% of working-age adults looked at the label, and 51% of Americans older than 68 did.

This spike is good news as the U.S. struggles with an obesity epidemic. There are studies that show that people who read labels tend to eat healthier.

The proposed changes affect all packaged foods except certain meat, poultry and processed egg products. Those are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

FDA is also proposing to make corresponding updates to the Supplement Facts label on dietary supplements where applicable. The agency is currently accepting public comment on the proposed changes.

For more information, click here


Susan Burke March is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, who as chief nutritionist for eDiets promotes the dietary health and wellbeing of consumers worldwide.

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