To Your Health: Nutrition Facts label to change, but will it change the way we eat?

To Your Health: Nutrition Facts label to change, but will it change the way we eat?

By Leia Kedem

As you may have heard, the Nutrition Facts panel is about to undergo renovations. Seems like the same old story. Just when you've gotten used to something, it up and changes.

But change isn't always bad, and we need it in order to move forward. To get a better idea of whether this one is good or bad, let's first recount the history of the Nutrition Facts label.

Nutrition labeling has been a source of consumer information since the 1970s. Over time, the lack of consistency among brands and foods became a problem. In the early 1990s, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was signed into law. Food labels were revamped to reflect current health concerns and make them easier to understand and use. At the same time, the NLEA made it mandatory for most packaged foods to display nutrition information in the same basic format.

Depending on the package size and nutrient content, you'll see a variety of formats. Regardless of the type, you'll see that five "core" nutrients are required on all formats: calories, total fat, sodium, total carbohydrate and protein. These are usually broken down further (e.g., saturated and trans fat under total fat, dietary fiber under carbohydrate).

You may have noticed that some foods don't have nutrition labels. That's because according to the NLEA, labeling is voluntary for many raw foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, bulk items, deli items and raw meat, poultry and seafood. For these raw foods, nutrition information may be printed on the package or on pamphlets or posters displayed near the food.

Nutrition labels can tell you a lot about food and knowing how to use all of the information on the label can help you make wise food choices for planning a healthy diet. However, the labels have come under fire for being confusing and even misleading. Many people are hailing the FDA's decision to change the label, and I agree that it's time. Here are the major proposed changes from the FDA and my thoughts.

I often say that the most important information on the Nutrition Facts panel is the serving size, because everything else afterward depends on how much you ate. This information is often missed.

For example, we might assume that the facts given on a packaged muffin are for the whole item, but many labels actually list the information for half a muffin. Who eats half a muffin? Not me. Luckily, the FDA is proposing to refresh the format to emphasize certain elements, such as calories, serving sizes and percent daily value.

The FDA also plans to update serving sizes to reflect what people actually eat, because this has changed over time. I think it is a good idea for people to start connecting nutrition information with what they are actually eating. However, some critics say this will condone our habit of eating larger portions. Interestingly enough, the FDA reminds us that "by law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what people should be eating." I can understand both sides of the argument, but I think we may be more successful at changing our supersize ways by first understanding the caloric impact of hefty helpings.

For foods in larger packages that could be eaten in one sitting or multiple sittings, nutrition information may be shown in a "dual column" format for both "per serving" and "per package." This sounds like a good idea. On a good day, 1/2 cup of ice cream might suffice for a treat, but some days just call for the whole pint. Note that I'm not necessarily saying this is a good habit, but we've all been there.

Another change is that the percent daily values will be updated for nutrients like sodium, dietary fiber and vitamin D. This is a pretty important change, since the current daily values are based on data from 1968. Yes, 1968.

Some information will be added to the label. "Added sugars," that is. Right now, only "sugars" are listed, which makes it hard to distinguish whether sugars are naturally occurring (like in fruit and milk) or added for sweetening. This is an important change because it will help us more easily identify foods that contribute to our added sugar intake, which on average is way too high.

Finally, "calories from fat" information will be removed, because we now know that the type of fat eaten is more important than the total amount.

As a dietitian and nutrition educator, what's most important to me is to remember that the basic information does not change. To make better food choices, you still have to know what it all means and how to interpret it. If you have questions about the label, feel free to reach out by email or through my Facebook page at facebook.com/moderationmaven.

Overall, I am optimistic about changes to the label, but only time will tell whether they make any difference in dietary behaviors. Will they change yours? It's all up to you.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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