Why new food labels will help in some ways, but not othersYou may or may not read the labels on the foods you eat. Regardless, the Nutrition Facts label could have some big changes ahead that will make reading it a bit easier — for some people.

What are the changes?

First lady Michelle Obama is partnering with the FDA to make several label changes to combat our rising obesity epidemic. The changes include:

  • Putting calories front and center and in large type to put a greater focus on calorie content
  • Including “added sugars” on the label to help consumers differentiate between naturally occurring sugars and the empty calories of added ones
  • Emphasizing different nutrients (Vitamin D and potassium instead of Vitamins C and A
  • Eliminating the “Calories from Fat” label
  • Shifting the “% Daily Value” (%DV) from the right to left column
  • Changing the serving size reference amounts to reflect common current consumption

Nutrition Facts labels

A dietitian’s opinion

As a dietitian, I see a lot of patients who don’t pay attention to food labels and find them confusing. I try to be very mindful of the information I give to patients so that it makes sense and gives them direction to take the next step with their health. While I see some benefits to these changes, I also have concerns.

On the positive side, putting calories and number of servings per container in a larger type is a great idea! Hopefully, it will encourage people to actually look at the label and maybe rethink what they eat. I also agree with the idea of taking away “Calories from Fat” on the label — this just hasn’t been a very helpful reference for most of us.

My concerns, however, stem from the new placement of the Percent Daily Value (%DV), and the changing of the Serving Size reference amounts. Many people get confused by %DV and what it means, so probably the best thing to know is that %DV is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Not everybody needs 2,000 calories per day for a healthy diet, however, so these numbers don’t always apply. Placing the %DV in the first column gives it too much importance.

My tip: When you look at a label, focus on the actual gram amounts of nutrients that are important for your own personal health, whether that’s fiber, fat, cholesterol or some other nutrient.

The impact of changing serving sizes

But the biggest worry I have is about the change in serving sizes. The FDA states that serving size reference amounts should be updated from previous standards to “reflect how much people typically eat at one time.” But wait a minute, aren’t we trying to combat an obesity epidemic? Look up “bagel serving size” on Google Images and you’ll see what a standard bagel looked like 20 years ago and what’s considered normal nowadays. It’s nearly twice as large and more than double the calories! People will think that the larger serving sizes are what they “should” be eating and could eat even more. Why would we change serving sizes on the food label to make the larger amounts more acceptable?

The food label has never been a perfect tool to help us make decisions about what we do or don’t eat. It has always required some extra knowledge or education about how to use it best for our own individual health goals. I think the new food label may help in some ways, but still won’t be a great tool for everyone. My advice (no surprise) is to consult with a dietitian if you have questions specific to your own health and reading food labels.

Amber Carbajal, MBA, RD, CD– Amber Carbajal, MBA, RD, CD, clinical nutrition manager, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin

Clinical dietitians at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin are specially trained to provide the best nutritional care for children.


Why new food labels will help in some ways, but not others — 3 Comments

  1. I agree with the dietitian on some things. And disagree on some.

    Good things: Calories bigger. Number of servings per container bigger.

    Bad things: Putting the %DV on the left seems strange. We normally read left to right, and typically we are looking for a certain item … so first seeing a list of percentages is not helpful.

    I disagree with the dietitian about some serving sizes being increased. If people do typically eat one bagel, then that should be the serving size. And if people typically eat 1 cup of ice cream, that should be reflected on the label. putting small serving sizes with associated smaller caloric amounts actually hides the realistic impact of eating that food item.

    I also think that removing the ‘calories from fat’ is a step in the wrong direction. Let’s say that there is a candy who gets 90% of its calories from fat, but the serving size is small. It has 10 grams of fat and 2 grams of sugar. 98 calories. 90 out of 98 are from fat! But the new label will only show that the fat content is 15% of DV. Some people will think: “wow, this is diet food. only 100 calories per serving and it is low fat too … look only 15%DV for fat”

  2. I find that nutrition-facts labels used in USA can easily be confusing when compared to same labels used in Europe where the decimal system applies. With the decimal system, things are clear at a glance: calories intake are plainly explained in 100 grams and the content of the food package is reported in Kg unit of weight. Mineral and vitamins facts and other nutritional information are added following. Anybody wanting to be precise in measuring calories intake can at home easily measure the desired quantity on her/his weighing scale sparing herself/himself the trouble of going through rather complicated calculation about “ servings, serving size, a cup being equal a serving size which in turn is worth 2,3,4 ounces let alone the misinformation (deliberate, maybe) of the %MD which should be relative to diets that should be different to different people. I dare say, with all due respect that the decimal system could be much easier for people in general to handle and gain at a glance information looking at a food label. Maybe the American Food Industry may disagree with my opinion.