Do you get a little confused when you read the nutrition labels on a food? You’re not alone- they can be a bit daunting to understand but mostly, they can be even harder to try to decipher when you are trying to be careful of your nutrition due to a chronic condition like heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.

There is good news on the horizon. The FDA introduced new food labeling guidelines in 2016 and even though food manufacturers have until 2020 to comply you will be happy to see many of the new labeling changes are evident when you read a food label today. Why has the FDA done this? Because the scientific evidence that the connection between the food you eat and our modern-day lifestyle diseases, namely obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and cancer is undeniable.

Here are some of the new changes.

1. Serving Size: Larger and bolder typeface now tell you both the ‘Serving Size’ and the ‘servings per container’. And these amounts have been updated to more realistic amounts that people actually consume. For example, ice cream used to be listed as ½ cup serving size and this has been changed to 2/3 cup because that is what a scoop of ice cream realistically consists of. Soda serving size has been changed from 8 ounces to 12 ounces. These changes help to bring the total amounts of food into more realistic quantities that are being consumed by and served to people.

2. Package size: Do you ever look at a small bag of food and realize that you just ate 4 servings in 5 minutes? Newer packaging requires that package sizes reflect what people will actually eat at one sitting. Food products that are larger than a single serving but might be consumed in one sitting or perhaps multiple sittings will have to provide “dual column” labels that show the amount of calories and nutrients on both the “per serving” and “per package” or “per unit” basis. This way, people can easily understand how many calories and other nutrients they are getting if they eat the whole box or bag.

3. Calories: Calories are now so big and bold you cannot miss them. The typeface is almost twice the size that it used to be. You can now easily read how many servings are in the box or bag and how many calories are in that serving.

4. Fats: The old labels use to show “Calories from Fat”. This has been removed because scientific research now tells us the TYPE of fat consumed is more important than the amount of calories from fat that you just ate. You will see Saturated Fats, Trans Fats and Cholesterol listed. The key is to eliminate trans-fats and limit your saturated fats. The American Heart Association suggests that we should not eat more than 5-6% of our total calories from saturated fats, which means no more than 13 grams if you are on a 2000 calorie diet. Trans fats should be at 0- there is NO level of trans fats that is safe to eat. This one is tricky though because if the trans fats are more than 0 but less than 1 it is legal for it to still say 0 even though you are consuming a trans- fat. Here is how to sleuth out those trans fats so that you don’t consume them unknowingly. Search the ingredient list- if you see ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ or ‘hydrogenated oil’ in the list that means there are trans fats in the food. If you eat a few servings of food that contain a small amount of trans fats they add up quickly and can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Cholesterol limits have been softened since research shows us that it is not the amount of total cholesterol we eat that contributes to a rise in bad cholesterol. Bad cholesterol (LDL’s) are increased by the liver when too much sugar and too many refined carbohydrates are consumed. However, some people (those with heart disease or hypercholesterolemia) should speak to your doctor about what their limits should be. The bottom line to these changes is that total fat is not a four-letter word anymore as science points out to us that healthy fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats help our body and improve our healthy type of cholesterol levels (HDL’s). Healthy fats are needed for the health of our cell membranes, our nerve function and is important for muscle movements and controlling inflammation in our bodies.

5. Added Sugar: The new labels now show us not only how much sugar is in the serving, they break down the sugars to both naturally occurring sugars and ‘Added Sugars” Added sugars include the sugars that are either added in when the food is processed or packaged and include sugars from a variety of sources like syrups, honey, and/or sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. Here is what you need to remember. Meeting your nutrient level every day is not easy, especially if you are limiting calories to lose weight. If you consume more than 10 % of your total calories from added sugars (that’s just 200 calories on a 2000 calorie day plan) it gets especially difficult to meet those nutrient needs to keep your body healthy and prevent disease.

6. Nutrients: The old version of labels used to show us Vitamin C, Vitamin A , Calcium and Iron. This has been changed to reflect the latest scientific research. You will now see both Vitamin D and Potassium as well Calcium and Iron. Vitamin C and Vitamin A have been dropped because Americans no longer have problems with these nutrients as deficiencies. Vitamin D and potassium are now required to be included on labels because most Americans don’t get the recommended amounts. Vitamin D is vitally important to our immune system and potassium has benefits to help with blood pressure. Another change is that the actual amount of each of these nutrients (in milligrams or micrograms) in addition to the % Daily Vitamin Requirement must be listed and they have updated the daily values for nutrients based on newer scientific evidence.

7. Footnote on bottom of label: It is now clearly pointed out that the information and percentages is based on a daily calorie intake of 2000 calories. You may need more or less than this so you may need to calculate up or down when you are reading the label. We all have a certain amount of calories that we need each day and each individual is different based on their size- their weight, height, age, gender, activity levels, lifestyle and overall health. Calories are a calculation of Food Energy and they come from Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrates. The definition of a calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram (g) of water through 1° Celsius. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women need between 1,600 and 2,400 calories a day, and men from 2,000 to 3,000. But again, this depends on their age, size, height, lifestyle, overall health, and activity level.

What remains the same:

Sodium: Sodium levels are still included in the new labels. You will notice that most all packaged foods, even so-called ‘natural’ ‘organic’ or processed foods that are touted to be ‘healthy’ have very high levels of sodium in them. Sodium helps improve shelf life. If you have high blood pressure, make sure your daily intake is not more than 1500 mg per day. That’s about ½ teaspoon of table salt if you don’t eat any packaged foods. Otherwise be mindful and diligent in counting it up every day to stay within those limits.

Carbohydrates, Fiber and Protein are still listed on the label. These numbers give you important information. Carbohydrates are broken down into Fiber, Sugars and Added Sugars. Daily fiber intake should reach between 25- 35 grams, Carbohydrates that are high in fiber are called ‘complex carbohydrates’ and will help with weight loss and blood sugar control. Check the protein amounts. Proteins are the building blocks of your body, Protein is a component of every cell in the human body and is necessary for proper growth, repairing cells and tissues and overall development, especially during childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy. Protein is important for many body processes, such as blood clotting, fluid balance, immune response, vision, and production of hormones and enzymes.

Becoming Food Label savvy takes a bit of doing; but understanding WHAT and HOW MUCH of different nutrients can affect your health and help prevent disease is important. The new labeling makes it easier for us to understand.

By: Cindy Luisi WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach

Sources:

https://www.fda.gov/files/food/published/The-New-and-Improved-Nutrition-Facts-Label-%E2%80%93-Key-Changes.pdf
https://www.fda.gov/media/98098/download
https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats
https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/understanding-food-nutrition-labels
https://medlineplus.gov/dietaryproteins.html