U.S. Nutrition Facts Label Updates Were Just Rolled Out – Here’s Why It Matters

January 21, 2020

Image via Shutterstock

Nina Zorfass, IIN Content Editor

Nutrition facts and supplement facts label – what is it?

On every packaged food product – from salad dressing to granola bars – there’s a nutrition facts and supplement facts label that tells you the nutritional information of the food. This label, and the information it highlights, has evolved since the 1950s based on human health and nutrition, U.S. dietary guidelines, and different laws and regulations related to food safety.

The main goal of this label is to educate consumers on what they’re eating and how it fits into their overall diet and lifestyle. The label as we know it today has not had a major overhaul to the information or design since 1994. As you know, our understanding of health and nutrition has continued to evolve over the last three decades, which is why the changes to this label are so important.

The five major changes to the nutrition facts and supplement facts label

Here’s a visual of the changes made to the label, with more information about each change below:

  1. More prominent highlight of serving size and servings per container. This change reflects a better understanding of how people consume certain foods. By law, serving sizes must be based on what people typically eat, not how much they should eat. An example is ice cream: Previous labels indicated a single serving size of 1/2 cup, but now the serving size is 2/3 cup. It’s recommended that you view this single serving size as a guideline for the maximum amount you would eat of that food. Again, it’s based on typical habits – not nutritional guidelines.

    In containers that have more than one serving, the label must convey the nutritional information for a serving and the entire container. Certain foods, such as ice cream, pretzels, or chips, are sometimes eaten at one time. Therefore, the label must represent both a single serving size as well as total calories and other nutritional information for the entire package.

  2. More prominent highlight of calories. This change is meant to provide more context for where your daily calories are coming from and how many calories you’re consuming in a typical serving. It’s recommended to also consider other values on the label, such as fat, protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals, because 300 calories of whole, unprocessed nuts is nutritionally different than a 300-calorie candy bar.

  3. More prominent highlight of sugar content – most notably, added sugars. It’s recommended that you keep your added sugar consumption to less than 10% of your total daily calories. However, sugar has become prolific in our food supply, and not just in what we consider junk food. Yogurt, bread, salad dressings, sauces, and protein bars can contain added sugars, and as consumers, we need to be more aware of how much sugar we’re eating. This includes learning how to read food labels for different sugar names – did you know there are over 60?!

    Including an “added sugars” line creates more transparency between the food product manufacturer and the consumer, alerting us to whether sugar was added to the product (versus inherent to the food item). This change is important because it aligns with educating consumers that eating foods with a lot of added sugar impacts how they meet daily nutrient goals. Beware, though: Many food and beverage products can use sugar substitutes, which do not need to be included on “Added sugars” line on the nutrition facts label. That’s why recognizing all the different terms for sugar is so important.

  4. Updates to vitamin, mineral, and fat content information. Vitamins A and C are no longer required to be on the nutrition facts label but can be added at the manufacturer’s discretion. In turn, vitamin D and potassium are now required because research has demonstrated that many Americans do not get their required daily amounts of these nutrients. Vitamin D is not only important for bone health but also for keeping your immune system healthy and functioning. It also supports functional nerve communication. Potassium is essential for maintaining cellular function by contributing to fluid and electrolyte balance.

    It’s important to note that while these vitamins and minerals are present on the label (and in the food), they might have been added during processing – check the ingredients list on the package to confirm. It’s recommended that you get your vitamins and minerals from whole, unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.

    As for fat content, total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat amounts are still included, but calories from fat has been removed due to research indicating that the type and amount of fat is more important than how many calories are from fat.

  5. Updates to daily value amounts. The daily value percentages have been adjusted based on research that demonstrates how certain foods and their nutrient makeup fit into the typical 2,000-calorie diet. The footnote description of what this percentage means has also been updated to better help people understand how their food choices fit into their daily diets.

How and why these changes were made

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, updated every five years to reflect changes in dietary patterns based on nutrition science and research, informed the major changes for the nutrition facts label.

These most recent guidelines emphasize the importance of our daily food choices, noting that because the prevalence of lifestyle disease continues to rise, learning how to make better, more informed food choices will be pivotal in reversing this trend. As stated in the Executive Summary of the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

“Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. However, people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation but rather in combination, and the totality of the diet forms an overall eating pattern. The components of the eating pattern can have interactive and potentially cumulative effects on health. These patterns can be tailored to an individual’s personal preferences, enabling Americans to choose the diet that is right for them. A growing body of research has examined the relationship between overall eating patterns, health, and risk of chronic disease, and findings on these relationships are sufficiently well established to support dietary guidance. As a result, eating patterns and their food and nutrient characteristics are a focus of the recommendations in the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines.”

The key takeaway from the changes made on the nutrition facts label? Being an educated consumer means making informed choices and understanding that while labeled foods can have a place in our diet, it’s imperative that we strive for a well-balanced diet with a focus on whole, unprocessed foods.

Why Integrative Nutrition Health Coaches should take note of these important changes

With these updated dietary guidelines and changes to the nutrition facts label, it seems as though the nutrition and wellness world is finally catching on to the paradox that Integrative Nutrition has been communicating for nearly 30 years: The world’s healthcare crisis continues to worsen, even as our knowledge of nutrition expands. We’ve long understood that there is a strong connection between our eating patterns and our health, and it is up to each individual to determine what diet and lifestyle changes are right for them by learning how to make educated nutrition decisions.

The recognition of this understanding from a national perspective underscores the important work of Integrative Nutrition Health Coaches, not just in the United States but all over the world, because Health Coaches help people recognize their own eating patterns and facilitate sustainable behavior change for improved health and overall quality of life. 

Health Coaches can use this information about the nutrition facts label as a learning tool when speaking with clients about food choices. By showing their clients how to read and analyze these labels, Health Coaches empower clients to make healthy decisions that are right for them.

In the Health Coach Training Program, we provide our students with resources on how to conduct their own supermarket tour, including how to bring clients into the supermarket and teach them what to look for on nutrition facts labels as well as how supermarkets are strategically designed to make it easy to wander the aisles for junk food! Health Coaches find major success with their clients after these tours as it provides tangible tools they can use consistently to create and sustain healthy habits.

Love reading about the latest in nutrition science and news? Tell us in the comments below and share what other nutrition science and news topics you want to hear more about!

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