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Nutrition Facts Label: Top 5 Essentials

By Stephanie Margolis, R.D.

Did you guys hear the news in March 2020? That’s right the new FDA-approved Nutrition Label was revealed! Oh, you missed that? No worries, that’s why I’m here!

Everything you buy can be flipped over to reveal a nutrition label, and if you can’t find it on the packaging you are likely to find it online somewhere. This is something that hasn’t been updated in 20 years, and finally the powers-that-be are making some upgrades with the consumer in mind. Of course, as a dietitian this is very news-worthy to me. Whether I am providing diet education to my patient who is recovering from heart surgery, or counseling a client who is trying to eat healthier during pregnancy, at some point we ALWAYS talk about food labels.

Why Food Labels?

They’re accessible and they give you a jumping off point to make your health decisions. Of course, you do have to do a little customizing but mostly all the info you need is right there. This is also really helpful if you or someone in your home have a food allergy, key intel is on these labels. This is regulated by the FDA to make sure companies not only are providing the information but also providing accurate information.

So What’s New?

Glad you asked! Some of the updates are fairly simple with changes to the formatting. For example, the serving size and calories will be in a larger font. This is because these two pieces of information are the most important, without these measures the rest of the information on the label doesn’t make sense. You will need the serving size to help make sense of your carbs or added sugar values further down.

Speaking of added sugar, this is probably the thing I am MOST excited about! Instead of just lumping all sugars together they have pulled out the added sugar info to its own line, making it really easy to know what’s in your food. When you look at the label you will see total sugar. This number gives you the amount of all the sugar in the food, naturally occurring (milk, fruit, veggies) along with the added sugars. There is no daily value amount next to it because currently we have no science-backed recommendations. BUT, the next line will have added sugars which include the sugar that is added during processing like sucralose, syrup, honey, concentrated fruit and veggie juice. We do know that you should limit added sugars. There is a slight debate over how much though. For example, the American Heart Association recommends women limit their intake to 6 teaspoons a day, or 24 grams. The FDA and USDA recommend limiting added sugars to 10% or less of your total calories, so if you are eating 2000 calories you can have up to 50 grams daily. My advice is to limit the added sugars as much as you can and use the nutrition label to help guide that.

Sugar, got it… what else?

The other update that is most relevant to us here is the vitamin and mineral section. This has been updated to reflect the most current dietary guidelines and health trends. Vitamins A and C have fallen off because people are not deficient in these nutrients like they used to be (ever learn about pirates and their scurry issues – yup, Vitamin C was to blame!). Now we have Vitamin D and Potassium on the label, along with the usual iron and calcium. Other than these changes, you will note that the %DV (percent daily values) have been updated to reflect the most current recommendations. If you’re up for a read, the recommendations can be found here.

Boil It Down For Me… Top 5… go!

When looking at the label all of us can benefit from knowing what the calories and servings sizes are. This helps us know what fits into our overall diet and helps from the rest of the label. Next, I’d recommend everyone look at the carbs, including those added sugars. This is because no matter what your health history or current health looks like we know that diet higher in added sugars and refined carbs can lead to things like heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and a whole host of concerns. Beyond these top 3, the next two things really depend on your specific needs and goals.

  • Heart health: If heart health is top of your list you need to look at saturated fats, trans fats and sodium. Limit saturated fats to 10% of your total intake and try to avoid trans fast as much as you can. A sodium restricted diet typically has less than 2000mg of sodium daily.
  • Insulin sensitivity: If you have a family history of diabetes, have diabetes currently, or find you are insulin sensitive limiting your carbs and increasing your fiber is going to be the best bet when looking at the label.
  • Building lean muscle: Muscles need amino acids to build and repair tissue. This is found in protein, so looking for foods that are higher in protein will help with this goal.
  • General weight loss: Watching sugar, protein, and fat can help with this goal. Choosing foods lower in sugar, saturated fats, trans fats but higher in protein, fiber, and good fats will help keep you full longer without getting too many empty calories. The label can also help with general weight loss when you are trying to pick out the right foods for you. For example, I will often be asked which yogurt someone should buy. My advice is to always pick a kind you like the taste of that is lowest in sugar and highest in protein.

So there you have it, maybe not the biggest headline in the year but a positive change in making nutrition information more relevant to customers. All foods will be donning the new label no later than January 2021!

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