If you’ve been paying attention to food labels at all recently, you may have seen some changes popping up. As of May 2016, the FDA announced the required changes to food labels. This is a huge win for public health as a whole, but only if you understand why these changes are so important. Enter your friendly registered dietitian.
Why do we need a new label?
To be blunt, the old label was kind of garbage. It was confusing to interpret and allowed companies to attempt to mislead consumers about how healthy their products actually were. Here’s what was wrong with the old label:
Ridiculous portion sizes
By far, the silliest part of the old nutrition label was the serving sizes. In an attempt to make their products seem lower in calories and healthier overall, companies would list unrealistic portion sizes. Check out this soda label:
At first glance, you might be thrilled to know that your delicious fizzy beverage is only 100 calories. But if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that this bottle of soda contains 2.5 servings. Meaning that if you drink the whole bottle (and let’s face it, who ISN’T drinking the whole bottle?) you’ve just downed 250 calories, not 100. Pretty sneaky marketing.
Unnecessary vitamin/mineral listings
While it may seem nice to know how much vitamin A and C are in your package of easy mac, to a nutrition professional that information is a little irrelevant and silly. Thanks to fortification and enriching of foods, the chances that a healthy individual would be deficient in either of these vitamins is highly unlikely. In fact, most people eat more than the recommended amounts of vitamin A and C. Thankfully, the FDA agreed to shift the focus to more important nutrients (more on that later).
Calories from fat
Remember in the 90’s when fat was the devil and we all cared entirely too much about how much of it was in our food? While it’s certainly true that you wouldn’t want to consume too many calories from fat, what’s more important is the type of fat you’re consuming. Including a “calories from fat” option drove consumers to be more worried about how much fat was in their food rather than the kind of fat. We now know that getting healthy fats such as mono and polyunsaturated fats is a good thing and not something that should be avoided.
What’s new on the label?
The new labeling requirements make me one happy dietitian. Granted, they still aren’t perfect, but they are leaps and bounds better than the previous label. They focus on more important public health issues and provide much more useful information. Here they are in all their glory:
Serving sizes in the amount people are actually eating
FINALLY. There is no reason anyone should have to do math to figure out how many calories are in a single serve package. Now you won’t have to, or at least not for most items. The new regulations require any package that is typically consumed in one sitting (i.e. a bottle of soda, snack sized back of chips) to list the full amount as a serving size. So that bottle of soda I mentioned above will now say 250 calories on the label, no math needed.
Yasssss. As a dietitian, it can sometimes be frustrating to educate people on how food works. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard say fruit is bad for you because it has sugar (which is ridiculous, by the way). The issue with sugar is when it’s added to food, not when it exists naturally. Sugars in fruit are also tied up in fiber, vitamins/minerals, and phytonutrients. Thanks to these other nutrients, the sugars in fruit have a very different effect on your body than simple table sugar. The new label reflects this important difference.
Relevant vitamins and minerals
At last, useful nutrition information. I’m sure you’re already aware that the average American diet is not the most healthy, but what you may not know is that vitamin D, calcium, and iron are all sorely lacking. So while calcium and iron were already listed on the label, the addition of their new friends vitamin D and potassium is a major win. Thanks to modern living and sunscreen (which is not a bad thing!), vitamin D levels in our population are low. We don’t get outside as much, and when we do our skin is protected from the sun. Vitamin D also exists naturally only in a very few types of food that most people aren’t eating in vast quantities, like salmon. This is truly a public health concern as vitamin D allows our bones to take up calcium as well as boosts immune function and reduces inflammation.
What about poor potassium? This has been a highly underrated nutrient for quite some time. Potassium’s main functions are to maintain electrolyte balance and control electrical activity in the heart. It is crucial in lowering high blood pressure, but also plays a role in the breakdown of carbohydrates and building of muscle. What’s more is that it is sometimes difficult to know how much potassium a person is even getting as this nutrient is so poorly tracked on food labels. And given that potassium shows up in the highest amounts in fruits and vegetables, there’s a good chance we could all use a little more of it.
Common Label Reading Mistakes
Don’t get me wrong, I’m stoked about the new changes to the label. But even still, there are some things about this label that aren’t very helpful or are still difficult to understand. Lucky for you, I’ve made a list of the most common mistakes I hear about interpreting the food label:
1. Blaming dietary cholesterol for a high blood cholesterol
Let me share with you a somewhat embarrassing story given that I’ve now dedicated my life to nutrition. High cholesterol runs in my family. Even as a child I had a high blood cholesterol despite a relatively healthy diet. At some point after having blood drawn, a doctor told my high school self that I needed to lower my cholesterol with nutrition. Despite having a mother who understood how the nutrition label worked and told me otherwise, I INSISTED that the total cholesterol number was what I needed to pay attention to, not the fat content of food. Surely they wouldn’t mention cholesterol on the label if it didn’t affect your actual cholesterol, right? The logic makes sense, but this is once instance where the food label isn’t very logical.
It turns out that dietary cholesterol doesn’t really affect your blood cholesterol at all. What does affect your blood cholesterol levels? Fat intake (sorry, Mom). Much more important than cholesterol in your foods is the type of fat. Trans fat has definitively been proven to increase LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and increase risk of heart disease. Saturated fat may also play a role as well. Why cholesterol continues to be listed on the food label is a mystery to me. If you’re concerned about heart health or just following a healthy diet in general, pay attention to the types of fat you’re consuming.
2. Basing intake off of the percent daily values versus actual needs
You might have noticed that nice little asterisk on the label next to the “%DV” that leads to a footnote about a 2,000 calorie diet. Turns out, this little footnote is very important. A 2,000 calorie diet isn’t right for everyone. In fact, I would argue that it isn’t right for most people (although your registered dietitian nutritionist can help you determine that for sure). The percent daily value is meant to act as a reference. It’s supposed to be an example to give you a better idea of nutrient content. However, it tends to be more confusing than helpful. Focus on meeting the amounts recommended to you by a dietitian instead of worrying about percents on the label.
3. Misunderstanding how carbohydrates are labeled
This mistake is a little less common, but I’ve heard it enough that it’s worth mentioning. Much like total fat is broken down into the various types, carbohydrate is broken down into its various types as well. However, since the types of carbohydrates don’t share a common label like fat does, it can be somewhat confusing. The total carbohydrates is the total amount of fiber, sugar, and other carbohydrates added together. Let’s use the label below as an example:
There are 37 g of total carbohydrates. Fiber makes up 4 of these grams and sugar makes up 12 g. 10 of those 12 g of sugar are added sugars, meaning only 2 g of sugar occur naturally in this food. This only accounts for 16 g of the total 37 g, so what makes up the other 21 g? Starches. These can be simple, complex, or resistant starches. For the average person, the number of total carbohydrates doesn’t carry much significance. However, if you have diabetes or you’re a competitive athlete, these numbers can be very important to you.
The moral of the story here is that you should use the food label as a very helpful tool, but it’s not individualized to your specific needs. While the label has certainly improved, you should still take the time to learn about what’s in your food and its effect on your health. These changes will be in full effect by 2020 for larger companies. Smaller companies will have until 2021, although many companies have already begun the switch. If you haven’t already, you’ll be seeing these new labels in your supermarket soon.