I was a third-year medical student. The day before, I had stood at a dissection table and opened a heart, the valves and arteries of which I had memorized. And yet, here I was in the grocery store, engrossed in and analysis of the tiny black and white type on the nutrition labels of two types of crackers.
Nutrition labels are sort of like a medical textbook—full of valuable information if you can decipher it but difficult for a non-expert to actually figure out. That's why you (and the more than 77 percent of Americans who say they use nutrition labels while shopping), can spend hours in the store scrutinizing the labels on two different foods and still leave unsure of which is actually more healthful.
The FDA recently made an important stride in trying to clear up the confusion with several big changes to labels. Some of these updates are long overdue and will make every shopper into a veritable food detective while others are a little more confusing.
Here’s the 411 on the good, the bad, and the still-a-little-tricky:
1. Calories will be written in a BIG font size.
The first thing that will jump out at you is the much larger size of the calorie count. It’s about twice as big—and written in bold to boot.
I’m on the fence about this one. While it’s certainly one of the numbers to consider, calorie count is not an assessment of a food's nutrition. If this was the only number you looked at, a serving of heart-healthy lentils would seem equivalent to one of those 100-calorie packs of snack cookies. Use this number as a gauge, but don’t rely on it—we’ve seen over and over again that the quality of the calories is just as important as the quantity.
2. Serving sizes will be “more realistic.”
Have you ever looked at the back of those “100 calories per serving” desserts and noticed that the container actually has like...oh...seven servings? The new labels are addressing that to a point—they update the serving size to what Americans actually eat based on recent portion-size surveys. For instance, the ice cream serving size will increase from ½ cup to ⅔ cup and soda from 8 to 12 ounces.
The change is happening because, by law, serving size is required to reflect what people are likely to eat, not what is recommended they eat. The new size is simply a result of the fact that the FDA has found that over the past two decades, Americans are eating larger and larger servings ("Shocked!" said nobody).
So enjoy your treats every once in a while, but don’t interpret the larger serving size as an allowance to double-down on that pint of Double Mocha.
3. The nutrients listed will change.
Vitamins A and C used to be listed at the bottom of the label, but these are being nixed in favor of two nutrients Americans don’t get enough of: vitamin D and potassium. Vitamin D is important for bone health, particularly for developing kids and older adults. Potassium, which the American Dietetic Association has identified as one of the nutrients children are lacking, helps maintain healthy blood pressure.
To be honest, most people have enough potassium, and the decision to list it is based on old studies, so I'd focus more on getting your vitamin D.
4. “Added sugars” will be labeled.
I love this change. When it comes to sugar, “added sugars” are the real culprits. Whole foods, such as fruits, contain natural fructose sugars, and most of us don’t need to minimize those. It’s the added sugars: corn syrup, cane sugar, other substances ending in “-ose” that wreak havoc on our bodies and brains. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, they can even have the same pull as an addictive drug.
Recent guidelines urging Americans to cut down on added sugars are right on target, and this update will only make it easier to steer yourself and your family in the right direction.
5. "Calories from fat" will be removed.
While the total calorie number has been supersized, the “calories from fat” number is missing from the new label. This is good, because as Dr. David Ludwig points out, the low-fat craze has done us more harm than good. However, in my opinion, this update doesn’t go far enough.
The label still measures “total fat” daily values, but just like some calories are good and others are empty, there are “good” and “bad” fats, which the label won’t address. It does at least highlight trans fats (which you don’t want to eat at all), but when it comes to good and bad fats, you’ll still need to learn and remember which foods have what.
You may wonder why trans fats are still included on the label—weren’t these being phased out of our food? Trans fats will be reduced but not completely eliminated, so the FDA will continue to require it on labels. And foods can be labeled “trans fat free” even if they have up to half a gram, so check that ingredients list! In 2015, the FDA declared that partially hydrogenated oils, the source of artificial trans fat, are not generally recognized as safe. Creepy, right? Skip it as much as possible.
We’ll start seeing this new label very soon, as most manufacturers will be required to have it in place by July 26, 2018.
The more you know what to look for, the smarter you can be as a consumer (and the less time you'll have to spend decoding labels in the grocery aisle).