A first look at the FDA’s new nutrition label — and 10 reasons it’s different from the old one

Source: Washington Post | May 20, 2016 | By Ariana Eunjung Cha

First lady Michelle Obama on Friday unveiled the much-anticipated overhaul of the nutrition labels you see on every packaged product at the grocery store, and it looks a lot like the old one — at least superficially.

The new label still retains the minimalist black-and-white, two-column look that designers have praised over the years, and it highlights many of the same categories, such as cholesterol and sodium. But this is where it might get confusing: Even though it doesn’t look all that different, some categories are now emphasized more than others, and the way some numbers are calculated has changed.

These are critical updates that highlight the breakthroughs in nutrition science and upheavals in our country’s disease burden over the years. Many of the changes represent losses for the food industry, which fought hard against updates because they essentially put some of the blame for our poor health on added sugars, eating overly large quantities of servings and consuming too many calories.

So it’s important that you read on to learn more about how it all works.

“The intention is not to tell consumers what to eat, but rather to make sure they have the tools and accurate information they need to choose foods that are right for themselves and their families,” Susan Mayne, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a conference call with reporters.

The first lady joked while announcing the changes at a health summit early Friday that “very soon 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.”

Experts predict that the new labeling guidelines may lead to major reformulations of some of the 800,000 products that currently carry the labels. More than 77 percent of Americans have said in surveys that they use the nutrition facts label when shopping, and companies worry that some of their products may appear less appealing under the new rules.

Those changes could end up costing the industry many millions. While reducing things like added sugars may sound simple, it actually requires a time-consuming and complex science. Your morning cereal, for example, could turn to dust in your bowl if the mix of ingredients isn’t just right. Or if you want to increase the amount of whole grains in a product, you may have to add more sugar to offset the bitterness of the new taste.

“Reformulating a product is not easy. There are all sorts properties that food scientists have to pay attention to, and one of those physical properties when it comes to sugar and salt is that they tend to hold things together,” said William Dietz, who researches obesity, nutrition and physical fitness at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

Then there’s the issue that some Americans equate something that’s healthier with something that’s less tasty.

Kraft recently revealed that it had reduced the sodium in its macaroni and cheese without telling consumers until the product had already been out for months, for fear of alienating fans of its original product.

The Nutrition Facts label was introduced more than 20 years ago by the government with the goal of helping consumers eat more healthfully. The FDA has been working to update the tag, which is put on almost all packaged foods, for more than two years. Americans will start seeing the new label soon because most manufacturers will be required to have theirs in place by July 26, 2018. (Those with annual food sales of less than $10 million will have another year to comply.)

Government standards for labeling of what Americans eat have extremely high stakes and can potentially boost sales of certain types of foods while tanking sales of others. When the FDA first announced several years ago that it wanted to revise the system, there was a huge debate over its content and design. Everyone, including consumers, scientists and food lobbyists, got involved.