Revamped nutrition facts label - a win for consumers and public health

When Michelle Obama announced new changes to the Nutrition Facts label to a room full of health and nutrition advocates last Friday, she received a standing ovation. I had the privilege of being in the room, representing the American Cancer Society.

The first lady told the audience that, for the first time since its inception in the early 1990s, the Nutrition Facts label – that black and white chart on packaged foods that lists the amount of calories and other nutrients – is getting a much-needed overhaul.

Some of the changes to the label, she went on the say, would include:

  • making the calorie text bigger and bolder so it is easier to see,

  • using a serving size that better reflects the amount that people are likely to eat,

  • and importantly, listing the amount of added sugars in the product – a change that health and nutrition advocates, including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, have been wanting for years.

The new label is a huge win for consumers who are trying to make better choices at the grocery store. Given that about 55% of consumers say they often use the Nutrition Facts label to help guide their food choices, the changes to the label have the potential to make a big impact on the foods people buy.

As the First Lady said, “You will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.”

Some food and beverage manufacturers and industry groups, especially those making products heavy on added sugar, have fought these changes. However, a number of food companies have come out in support of the Nutrition Facts label update, perhaps in response to the shifting attitudes of consumers, who today more than ever, want to know exactly what’s in the food they are feeding their families. And the new, more transparent nutrition label will allow shoppers to more easily identify which foods are good choices, and which are not.

A Close Look at Added Sugars

The inclusion of added sugars on the label was one of the most hotly contested changes, and also one of the most important. Added sugars – sugars that are added by the manufacturer during processing – are a major contributor to excess calorie intake that leads to obesity, and are considered “empty calories,” (i.e. they add calories to the diet without providing any other nutritional benefit). These are separate from sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruits and dairy products, which also provide other important nutrients to the diet, like vitamins, calcium, and protein.

Dietary guidelines published by U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services earlier this year recommended for the first time a limit on added sugars, capping them at no more than 10% of daily calories. For a 2000-calorie diet, that’s about 50 grams of sugar. Without the revision of the Nutrition Facts label to include added sugars, consumers would have no way of knowing if they were meeting that recommendation.

The new label will clearly state how many grams of added sugar are in each serving, and will show how much of the daily recommended sugar limit that amount accounts for. For example, a quick peak at the Nutrition Facts label on a 20-ounce bottle of regular soda will reveal a whopping 65 grams of added sugar (130% of the daily recommendation), well above the recommended limit of 50 grams for the entire day!

The added sugars on the label will also help consumers find the healthiest options when comparing similar products. Yogurt is a good example of this – while yogurt contains many important nutrients, like calcium and protein, many yogurt brands also contain a mix of both naturally-occurring and added sugars. Right now, there’s no way to know how much of the “sugars” listed on the label occur naturally vs. added by the manufacturer. This distinction will be made clear on the revised label, allowing consumers to make an informed choice.

One Step in the Right Direction

So, is a revamped Nutrition Facts label the “magic bullet” that’s going to solve the obesity crisis in America? Certainly not – the epidemics of excess body weight, poor nutrition, and lack of physical activity are influenced by many factors and were decades in the making. It’s going to take time, a lot of patience and perseverance, and a mix of many different strategies to turn it around. But with efforts like this one and many others, such as offering healthier school foods, including calorie labeling on restaurant menus, and making communities more walkable, we are slowly but surely making the healthy choice the easier choice.