This article is part of a 5-part series on food labels on The University of Texas’ Nutrition Department’s Blog.
The nutrition facts panel, known as the small black and white table on the back of all food labels, has played a significant role in our pursuit for safer and healthier food. The inclusion of a nutrition panel on labeling is the manifestation of public demand for information about a product’s ingredients, as well as its nutritional content. From their inception in 1990 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the standard layout of the label has included a suggested serving size, amount of calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, sodium, fiber, and the amount of select vitamins and minerals. Over the years, very few things changed, even with revisions every 5 years from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency tasked with updating the Nutrition Facts panel based on the most recent nutrition research. But in 2016 the FDA announced the first major updates to the Nutrition Facts since their introduction to the food industry.
First Lady Michelle Obama announced the modifications to nutritional labels at an annual Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in May of 2016. The changes include:
- Serving sizes that more closely reflect what people consume
- Larger font size for calories per serving
- More in-depth explanation of percent daily value (%DV)
- Added sugar per serving information
- No longer differentiating how many calories come from fat
- Vitamin A and C amounts will now be optional
- Vitamin D and Potassium amounts will now be mandatory
Each one of these changes is intended to Help Families Make Healthier Choices and can be broken down into two major categories: 1.) Increasing ease of use and understanding and 2.) Updating information based on latest scientific evidence. First, by updating serving sizes to more realistic portions, increasing the font size, and including a more detailed explanation of percent daily value, proposed changes are expected to make food labels easier to read and understand by all people.
The other major changes revolve around updating the label to present nutrients the research community considers the most important for overall health. Take for example the exchanges in vitamins and minerals. Recent evidence from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) suggests that most Americans do not consume adequate amounts of Vitamin D and potassium, while deficiencies in Vitamin A and C are now rare. Because of these findings, it may be more important to focus on Vitamin D and potassium, instead of Vitamin A and C, within the nutrition facts panel to help consumers better identify foods with these key nutrients.
Similarly, the addition of added sugar and removal of the number of calories from fat are based on research findings. For example, research suggests that increased consumption of added sugar is likely associated with increased risk of obesity and diabetes. Given the negative health risk associated with increased added sugar consumption, there is reason to provide this information to consumers. In regard to the removal of ‘% of calories from fat,’ results from NHANES suggests that most Americans already meet fat recommendation of 20-35% of the total daily calories. See current daily intakes of macronutrients from American here, indicating that it might not be an essential piece of nutrition information for consumers.
While these changes were well received by many, implementing these changes meant that all food production and packaging companies were required to update their product’s food label by the summer of 2018, only two years after the announcement. Because of this mandated change, many food companies along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, pushed back against the mandate, as they expressed the timeline would be too quick to incorporate all of the new changes. Due to this pressure from the food industry, the mandate to update food labels was pushed back until the year 2020 by the current administration. Despite the date being pushed back, many companies have already updated their labels, such as major soft drink and snack item brands Coca-Cola and Nabisco.
For more information on food labels and nutrition facts, see our previous post on The History of Food Labels.