By Jamie Bussel, MPH, Senior Program Officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
For many of us, January 1 brings New Year’s resolutions—and those resolutions often have something to do with a renewed commitment to better health. As we all know, of course, these resolutions can sometimes lose steam after a few months…or even weeks…or sometimes just days. Fortunately, for those of us who have made commitments to eat healthier in 2020, we’re all getting a hand to ensure those resolutions can stick for the long-term.
We’re all familiar with the Nutrition Facts label. This is the label that appears on billions of food and beverage products, giving us the lowdown on how healthy (or not so healthy) items are based on metrics like calories, fat, sugar, salt, carbohydrates, protein, and various vitamins and minerals. The label has been mandatory under a federal law enacted in 1990.
“Having information at our disposal to make the healthiest choices possible is essential, and the Nutrition Facts label will help us do just that. For my family and millions more, this new label means a lot.”
On January 1, an updated Nutrition Facts label took effect covering all food and beverage products from manufacturers with more than $10 million in sales (most manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual sales get an additional year to comply). This milestone is a long time coming—the previous label had been in effect for 20 years and it’s been six years since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first proposed updates. RWJF submitted comments in support of the proposed changes, which will empower consumers and families to make healthier purchasing decisions.
You’ve probably seen the new label already—a number of companies have been using it voluntarily for some time now. But let’s take a closer look at some of the changes that are now mandatory and why they’re so important. The image below has the old label on the left and the new label on the right.
Here’s what’s new:
New line for added sugars. Several studies have found that overconsumption of added sugars is associated with an increased risk of obesity and related conditions like Type 2 diabetes. As a parent of two young girls, it’s extremely helpful for me to know not only how much added sugar is in a product, but also the percent daily value. In other words, if one serving of a product provides 10 percent of what you should be consuming in a day (the daily value), that’s 10 percent of the maximum total amount of added sugars per day. Fortunately, the new label includes both pieces of information, which is a major help for families.
More realistic serving sizes. The Nutrition Facts label has always included serving sizes, and by law they must be based on how much people actually eat. Yet the serving size requirements hadn’t changed since 1993, even though the amount people eat—not to mention obesity rates in the United States—have increased dramatically since then. Serving sizes will now reflect how much people typically eat and drink today, instead of standards from more than 25 years ago. That change will help consumers be much better at estimating what they are actually taking in.
Taking care of the math. Under the previous label, people could sometimes mistakenly equate calories in a single serving for total calories in a package (see this study); people could also incorrectly calculate percent daily value percentage of calories in a single serving (see this study). The updated Nutrition Facts label will help guard against ‘human error’ by literally doing the math for us. For instance, certain products that can be consumed in one or multiple servings—the FDA cites a 24-ounce beverage or a pint of ice cream as examples—will now feature “dual labels” that include the nutrition content of both a single serving as well as the entire package. The last thing busy parents need to do while they are shopping in the grocery store is math; with the updated labels, we will not have to!
Refreshed presentation. Calories, servings per container, and serving size are among the most essential pieces of the Nutrition Facts label. Under the new design, they’re all featured in bigger and bolder font, making it much easier to see.
Nutrition Facts Labeling
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 requires companies to include the Nutrition Facts label on most packaged foods and beverages. In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated the Nutrition Facts label to reflect the latest advances in nutrition science and consumer eating habits.
The Nutrition Facts label has always been popular among consumers. More than three-quarters of U.S. adults report using the Nutrition Facts label to inform purchasing decisions, with half using it “always” or “most of the time,” while nearly 80 percent use it always or sometimes when purchasing a product for the first time. The new label is even more of a hit—a 2018 poll from the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that nearly 90 percent of Americans support implementation of the updated label. With all these important and helpful changes, it’s easy to see why. And when you consider that the new label will generate up to $78 billion in benefits to consumers over 20 years, according to the FDA, there’s simply no reason not to cheer that this day has come.
Nutrition education, of course, is just one piece of the puzzle. To really turn the obesity epidemic around, we need all food and beverage manufacturers to commit to making and marketing healthier products, and ensuring those products are affordable and accessible to people in every community. But having information at our disposal to make the healthiest choices possible is also essential, and the Nutrition Facts label will help us do just that. For my family and millions more, this new label means a lot. And that gives us even more reason to celebrate the new year!