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After 20 Years, a Food Label Makeover

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

May 20, 2016 -- The nutrition facts panel on the back of food packages -- that box many of us check to see how many calories and how much fat, protein, and fiber are in the foods we eat -- is getting a new look.

Among the key changes:

  • A new line will tell people how much sugar has been added to a processed food.
  • Serving sizes will be updated to more closely reflect the amount of a food people actually eat. A serving of ice cream, for example, will be increased to two-thirds of a cup instead of one-half cup. A serving of soda will go from 8 to 12 ounces.
  • Calories will be larger and bolder.
  • Daily values will be updated to reflect the most recent science. The daily value for fiber has been increased from 25 grams to 28 grams, for example.
  • New vitamins and minerals will get some space. Potassium and vitamin D, two nutrients that Americans tend not to get enough of, will now be featured on food labels.

First lady Michelle Obama and the FDA announced the new changes Friday. They're the first updates to nutrition labels in 2 decades. Food manufacturers will have between 2 and 3 years, depending on their size, to comply.

"This is going to make a real difference in providing families across the country the information they need to make healthy choices," Obama said in a statement.

Nutrition advocates cheered the new rule, which had faced fierce opposition from the food industry.

"I think it's a huge step forward," says Laura MacCleery, director of regulatory affairs for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

"The line for added sugars is just a revelation. We'll be able to see how much sugar in yogurt is naturally there from milk sugar and how much is added to sweeten it," she says.

Right now, the average American eats about 115 grams (23 teaspoons) of added sugar a day. The new daily value for added sugar will be 50 grams -- less than half that amount.

Food manufacturers and the sugar industry fought hard to keep added sugars off the food label, saying that people won't understand the changes.

"Because consumers could be confused by the new label with its numerous changes, a robust consumer education effort will be needed to ensure that people continue to understand how the revised label can be used to make informed choices and maintain healthful dietary practices," the Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a Friday statement released in response to the new rule.

The Sugar Association has said there's no scientific basis for distinguishing between added sugars and those that are naturally in foods. They also say there's no evidence that labeling these sugars will help people improve the quality of their diets.

In a White House media briefing on Friday, senior administration officials said the new daily value for added sugar is aimed at helping people improve their diets. When added sugar amounts to more than 10% of daily calories, it displaces needed nutrients, the officials said. Too much of the added sweet stuff also contributes to overeating.

Marion Nestle, PhD, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, agrees.

"I think this has to be scored as a huge win," Nestle says. "The FDA released what it proposed on the big stuff... this is cause for celebration."

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References
SOURCES: Marion Nestle, PhD, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, New York University. Laura MacCleery, director of regulatory affairs, Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. News briefing, White House.News release, Food and Drug Administration. News release, Center for Science in the Public Interest. News Release, Grocery Manufacturers Association. News Release, The Sugar Association.

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