Extension expert: Use existing nutrition facts to eat healthier now

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Changes to the nutrition facts label on foods just approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration don't kick in for two years, but that shouldn't stop people from using the existing label to eat smarter now, according to a nutritionist with Penn State Extension.

The FDA will require most food manufacturers to use the new label by July 26, 2018, but will grant smaller food manufacturers (less than $10 million in annual food sales) an extra year to comply. However, consumers shouldn't wait until then to embark on a healthier diet, said Lynn James, who is also a registered dietitian.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people don't pay attention for so long, then something happens like the onset of diabetes, heart disease or obesity and they realize, 'Gosh, I really need to follow these things,'" she said.

"But if they had been paying attention to their diet and the nutrition facts label earlier, they may not have had to deal with the health problems."

new and old labels compaed

The FDA will require most food manufacturers to use the new label by July 26, 2018, but will grant smaller food manufacturers an extra year to comply. However, consumers shouldn't wait until then to embark on a healthier diet. 

Image: Penn State

Major changes to the nutrition information label will include the following:

  • For the first time, the label will indicate the grams of "added sugars," as well as the percentage of recommended daily limit that this amount represents.
  • The serving size will more closely reflect the actual amount that people typically eat.
  • The daily recommended limits for sodium and the recommended daily values for dietary fiber and vitamin D will be updated to be consistent with Institute of Medicine recommendations and the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which were revised in early 2016.
  • The "serving size" and "calories" per serving will be larger and easier to see.
  • The amount and percentage daily value of vitamin D and potassium will be added.
  • Packages that contain between one and two servings, such as a 20-ounce bottle of soda, will be labeled as one serving because people typically will consume the entire package in one sitting.
  • For certain foods that can be eaten in one sitting — such as a pint of ice cream — the label will include both "per serving" and "per package" calorie and nutrition information.

"The really big change that dietitians and nutritionists like me have been fighting for is putting 'added sugars' on the label because currently it only says 'sugar,' and that includes sugar that occurs naturally in foods, such as fruits or milk and milk products," said James.

"Prior to this addition, you had no way of telling how much of the sugar in a packaged food was a natural part of the main ingredient and how much was introduced via processing, making the original ingredient sweeter."

U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that no more than 10 percent of calories come from sugars, but way too many people far exceed that, James pointed out. Using the daily 2,000 total calorie guideline, that means no more than 200 calories should come from sugar each day — the equivalent of 12 teaspoons, or 50 grams.

"But many people don't realize that there are 17 or 18 teaspoons — 68-72 grams — of sugar in a 20-ounce soda," she said. "Fruit drinks, ice cream and yogurt are other foods that contain much more added sugar than people realize, and then there's hidden sugar in foods such as spaghetti sauce and cereals that do not necessarily taste sweet — but there's a lot there. So the new label will allow people to compare, and that's a good thing."

Increasing serving sizes to better reflect how much people actually eat is also a huge development, James noted. The best example is ice cream switching from a half-cup serving size to two-thirds of a cup.

"Actually, most people probably start with a cup, but the larger serving size on the new label will begin to show people how many calories and how much sugar they are consuming with a bowl of ice cream. They may still eat all of it, but it will allow them to figure it out more easily."

Some people likely have been consuming double and triple the calories they think, based on their reading of the current label. For example, James explained, the label on a 20-ounce soda currently states that it is two servings, but most people drink the entire bottle, not realizing that.

James would like to see consumers place more emphasis on the "percent daily value" column in the label. "I know some folks still may not understand the percent daily values. But if you can get to 100 percent of the nutrients at the bottom of the new label — such as vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium — and not exceed 100 percent of fat, sodium and carbohydrates in a day, that would be great," she said.

"For example, if you have a snack that has 25 percent of your daily value for sugar, it means that you are at one quarter of your entire sugar intake for the whole day."

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Last Updated June 10, 2016