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How to Read the New Nutrition Facts Labels

Nutrition label on a bottle

Often one of the first suggestions when you’re trying to get healthy is to read labels. It’s something I suggest myself, especially when it comes to finding sugar and understanding just how much you are eating.

But sometimes, it feels like you need a degree in nutrition fact label reading just to understand it all!

The FDA is rolling out some changes to the required nutrition labels which are supposed to clarify some previously confusing portions and be more transparent and easy to understand. And you know what? Almost all of their changes are really good, and nearly exactly how I would have made them. In fact, I wrote this article a few years back wishing for the very change they made with the added sugars.

So let’s break this down, with some tips for reading the new nutrition facts labels and information on what is changing and when it will happen.

New Nutrition Facts Format – Big Changes

So what’s new? Here is a quick break down of the most important points:

  • Added Sugars listed separately from Total Sugars
  • Calories from Fat removed, because “research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount” (Wow! They got something right!!)
  • Serving size will be much more realistic
  • Actual amounts required for vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium, not just percent daily value
what's different in the new nutritional label.

Source: F.D.A Changes to Nutrition Facts Label

There are a few other changes, such as vitamin A and C no longer required, and vitamin D and potassium newly required, and some refiguring of percent daily value based on the latest research.

The total calories are also larger visually, which doesn’t really matter to me because I don’t count calories, but it’s a great easy visual way to know if you are looking at the new or the old version.

Overall, I have to just say that I am proud of the FDA for these positive changes! Not something I say very often!

Understanding the difference between added sugars and natural sugars is huge for managing one’s health, and the realistic serving sizes may make a difference in consumption as well.

Want to watch a video about this with your kids so they know all this info? Check out Reading Nutrition Labels Parts 1 and 2 on Kids Cook Real Food.

When Will the New Nutrition Facts Labels Be Required?

The initial date that all food companies would have had to roll out these new labels was July 2018, but you may have noticed that all labels have not yet changed. Many association heads, from corn refiners, meat and dairy, to dressings, sauces, and vinegar, all signed a joint letter appealing to the Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services for more time.

Their reasoning mostly included saving money on expediting new labels, because with over 400,000 new food products in the last 30 years, new labeling, including testing for nutrients, is a huge multibillion-dollar task. Companies would save almost half if they had twice as long to get it done, and many also wondered if they would also be changing their labels for updated GMO disclosure policies and wanted to combine the updates.

This appeal was approved, and the new regulations will require manufacturers to use the updated nutrition facts labels by the beginning of 2020, while smaller companies get an extra year to comply.

However, many brands already are using the new labeling system. I used to say that you could tell a brand cared about its ingredients if they were using the new labels, but this Pinterest board of new nutrition fact labels proves me wrong. There is plenty of junk food on there too!

Let’s dig into how to interpret the new changes.

The Big One: Added Sugars Listed Separately

New nutrtion labels shows added sugars

Sugar is a big hairy confusing topic for most people, especially those who are fairly new to eating whole foods. We all know that we want to keep our sugar intake low, but recommendations from places like the American Heart Association only include “added sugars,” which leaves a lot of questions floating out there. See how confusing doing the math yourself can be?

People wonder if raisins or apple juice count if the lactose in milk driving up grams of sugar in dairy products matters, and many automatically assume that honey and maple syrup are of course way better and don’t count when we are trying to cut down on sugar content.

Good news and bad news…

  • Raisins and apple juice are different from added sugars, but some explanation needed, below
  • Lactose in milk should not count as added sugar (although it may prevent some people from losing weight)
  • Honey and maple syrup are better for you than white sugar, but not much… And they still count as added sugars.

If in its whole form, with the peels and fiber included, natural sugars from fruit should not be a huge issue, especially in fairly healthy individuals. This is what the FDA defines it as too: as long as the whole fruit is in the ingredients, it does not have to be listed as an added sugar.

But as soon as you pull part of the fruit out, for example in concentrated apple juice, it becomes an added sweetener because it’s just adding empty calories that make it difficult to get the correct nutrients in the rest of the calories we eat. Bravo, FDA!

Even though whole fruit isn’t “added sugar,” If you are trying to lose weight or manage something like diabetes, however, a banana still might not be your friend. The sugary carbs in bananas (as one of the sweetest examples in the fruit world) can still impact triglycerides and blood sugar negatively. BUT they aren’t added sugars, and they’re not entirely empty calories.

To be very clear, these items would not be on the added sugar line on the new nutrition fact labels:

  • Dried fruit
  • Whole fruits
  • Fruit purees or pulps (if the whole fruit is involved)
  • Fruit juices when used in jellies, jams, and preserves
  • 100% fruit or vegetable juice (including concentrates when the concentrates IS the product, as in frozen orange juice)

But any of these would be added sugars:

  • Honey
  • Maple Syrup
  • Any form of cane or beet or corn sugar
  • Concentrated fruit or vegetable juices (because “the sugars added to the foods by the concentrated fruit or vegetable juice provide[s] additional calories.”)
  • Any fruit or vegetable powder, puree, pulp, ETC. wherein it no longer contains all the components of the whole food and/or the sugar content is higher than it would be if you were eating the original food. Manufacturers need to be honest about how individual ingredients are processed.
  • To see exactly what complicated formulas are used for some of this fruit juice figuring, see here

Source: FDA Questions and Answers on the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels Related to the Compliance Date, Added Sugars, and Declaration of Quantitative Amounts of Vitamins and Minerals: Guidance for Industry

Officially, here’s what the FDA says about added sugars in the above document, for your reading enjoyment:

The final rule defines “added sugars,” in part, to include sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such. The term includes free sugars (free mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type. The final rule requires added sugars to be declared on the food label by stating, “Includes ‘X’ g Added Sugars” indented directly below “Total Sugars.”

There will be a “% Daily Value” for sugars which is totally new, and it’s based on the idea that it’s very hard to get sufficient nutrients in your day if more than 10% of your calories come from nutritionally empty added sugars. Therefore the “Daily Value” for added sugar is 50g, figured using a 2,000 calorie diet. The AHA considers about 24-30g to be the limit for children, by the way.

This “Daily Value” is very different from all the others, where we WANT to make sure we consume at least that daily value each day. For sugar, we don’t want to go over.

So if you see a nice high percentage number on your iron or vitamin D, great. But if you see a high number on the “Added Sugars,” think twice about your purchase! This could be a game changer when it comes to awareness of how much sugar we eat.

Do understand that the “Added Sugars” are included in the “Total Sugars” line. The most common mistake early testers made when interpreting the new labels was to try to add up Total+Added to figure out how many grams of sugar were in a food.

Because of pressure from manufacturers, there are a few “Added Sugar” exceptions:

  • Sweetened Cranberries and juice
  • Honey and maple syrup

The backstory is that basically lobbyists had their say, and the FDA adjusted the rules. (Ocean Spray, International Maple Syrup Institute, National Honey Board)

Honey and maple syrup industries worried that people would be confused if their products listed “added sugars.” People buying natural sweeteners are looking for something other than sugar, so they wanted it to be clear that the products were not somehow adulterated with cheap sweeteners. Seems fair – if anyone understands that they’re buying a sweetener, total sugars and added sugars are exactly equal, of course.

To be clear, if honey or maple syrup is an ingredient in a processed food, it still will be calculated in the “Added Sugars” line per the regulations. But when you buy a jar or bottle of honey or maple syrup where the only ingredient is the sweetener, the “Added Sugars” line will include a special explanation that no sugar was actually added to the product.

The cranberry industry whined that their product is unpalatable without some added sweetener, and they put forth their logical argument that if people see that raisins and cranberries have similar total sugars but cranberries have all these grams of added sugar, they’ll skip the cranberries and buy raisins (same argument for cranberry juice vs. grape juice). The FDA allowed for a concession that “dried cranberries and cranberry juice sweetened with added sugars that provide an amount of total sugars in a serving that does not exceed the level of total sugars in a serving of a comparable product with no added sugars,” may have a special symbol following the added sugars and an explanatory statement on the label.

I am really not sure what I think about this – the sugars in cranberry products can range from plain old white sugar to high fructose corn syrup to concentrated apple juice! I think consumers just need to be aware of actual ingredients when buying cranberry products and don’t buy anything you wouldn’t use in your own kitchen to sweeten something bitter, like homemade hot cocoa.

These are the “working” versions of the labels with exceptions:

exceptions in new nutrition facts label

Source: The Declaration of Added Sugars on Honey, Maple Syrup, and Certain Cranberry Products: Guidance for Industry

Realistic Serving Size a Huge Success

Comedian Brian Regan has a hilarious sketch about ice cream serving size, and how no one actually eats 1/2 cup. That sketch will now be outdated, as serving sizes are to be more realistically aligned with what people actually eat. For some items, they might still be a little small (ahem, 2/3 cup for ice cream, not much of a jump!), but it’s a step in the right direction.

New food serving size requirements

Source: F.D.A Changes to Nutrition Facts Label

The best change is that when a package is designed to be eaten in one sitting, like a bottle of soda or package of candy or a single pack of snacks, the serving size has to be the whole container. In the past, you might pick up a 20 oz bottle of a sugary drink and see 100 calories on the nutrition facts label. Upon closer review, you discover there are two and a half servings at a hundred calories each in the bottle. It’s just misleading for people who were not reading closely, so now that will be much more clear.

For foods that are packaged in sizes larger than a normal serving size, there is a “dual column” label to be used, where one column will list the “normal” serving size and the other lists the amounts in the whole package.

New serving size labels for nutrition facts

Source: F.D.A Changes to Nutrition Facts Label

Soda, for example, has increased from 8 ounces in a serving to 12. If you buy a 20-ounce soda now, you’ll see one column with nutrition data for 12 ounces and another for the whole container.

Should we make our food choices based on calories? No, I don’t believe so. But for people who are making quick decisions and still think that’s important, hopefully, this new change will help them understand more about what they are putting in their bodies.

What intrigues me and my team the most, however, is that no one is asking WHY we are increasing our consumption so much. Decades ago 8 ounces was a realistic serving of soda, and you might actually be served that size (one cup) in a restaurant. Now, we would assume that’s a children’s serving (or worse, a “sample”). Even a 32-ounce soda, which is alarmingly common, is more than double the new, larger “serving size.”

Anything beyond double, in fact, won’t even get the dual column label because that’s clearly more than one serving. See the irony here? So the serving size regulations are far from perfect, but the real problem is that the sizes Americans are being served are simply too ridiculous.

Good Fat, Bad Fat, Total Fat

The FDA is removing “calories from fat” because that number could scare people even though it doesn’t have much of an impact on health. I’m quite thrilled that the FDA has found current research to prove that and are removing the total calories from fat line!

As whole foods consumers, we want to pay attention to exactly what fats are being used in the ingredients, and the amount doesn’t really matter very much. I explained all of this years ago in my Fat Full Fall series, and you can see a version in video form intended for upper elementary and middle school-aged children right here (fats info start at 3 mins 15 seconds):

If you can’t view the video above, click Reading Nutrition Labels for Kids to see it directly on YouTube.

Parents have already been telling me that they are learning too, so if you like memory tricks to help you keep in mind which fats are good and which fats to avoid, check out the video.

Vitamin and Mineral Amounts Should be Helpful

As Americans are becoming more and more aware of their nutritional needs and supplementing more often, it only makes sense for manufacturers to include actual measurable amounts the nutrition facts label. This means that we no longer have to guess if the Recommended Daily Value fits our diet, body type, or nutritional needs. We can use hard to data to determine how much of a given nutrient we are eating.

I’m not sure I understand or fully care why vitamins A & C got the boot from the requirements while vitamin D and potassium have been added to the required labeling. I do agree that vitamin D and potassium are very important nutrients, although magnesium and zinc would be helpful as well, as I have recently learned.

To see a chart comparing old and new Daily Value and measurement requirements, see here (PDF).

Who Doesn’t Like the New Nutrition Labels?

As always, there was some controversy – but this time it was from an organization you might not expect.

As you can read here, a formal petition asking the FDA to ditch some of the new changes was filed by the Natural Products Association, “representing interests of manufacturers and retailers of the natural products industry, which includes organic and health foods, dietary supplements, natural ingredient cosmetics, and other similar products” (source).


Typically the natural Foods community would be more in favor of all of this, but it just goes to show that something I like to remind people of is true:

Just because it’s organic doesn’t always mean it’s healthy.

One huge problem I see in the organic foods selection is sugar content. There’s plenty of organic sugar, honey, and maple syrup in many processed organic foods, and certainly those who cater to the health community have the most to lose if people suddenly realize that their added sugars are more than they ought to be consuming.

How Fiber is Calculated on the New Nutrition Facts Label

The petition also took issue with the FDA’s decision on dietary fiber. It sounds like there was some discussion about changing how fiber is calculated, and the NPA thought some of the FDA’s decisions were poor, particularly that they wanted to exclude some fibers that are often used in natural foods.

As of March 2018, the FDA was still trying to figure out what the guidelines would be on fiber, in particular, certain non-digestible carbs. Finally, in June 2018, the final ruling came down.

Here is a list of fiber ingredients that were going to be excluded from fiber calculations, but may now still be included:

  • mixed plant cell wall fibers (a broad category that includes fibers like sugar cane fiber and apple fiber, among many others);
  • arabinoxylan;
  • alginate;
  • inulin and inulin-type fructans;
  • high amylose starch (resistant starch 2);
  • galactooligosaccharide;
  • polydextrose; and
  • resistant maltodextrin/dextrin.

These are all “non-digestible carbohydrates” and I recognize many of them from lists of “resistant starch,” generally thought to be a very good thing for our microbiome.

Along with any naturally-occurring fiber found in foods, these synthetic fibers are also allowed in calculations (and have been since the new rules were drafted in 2016):

  • beta-glucan soluble fiber;
  • psyllium husk;
  • cellulose;
  • guar gum;
  • pectin;
  • locust bean gum; and
  • hydroxypropylmethcellulose.

Source: ESHA Research Updates for Dietary Fiber on the Nutrition Facts Label

And there’s still controversy about this move, with some calling the new fiber requirements “health-washing,” a term I hadn’t heard before but makes perfect sense to me. It’s like “green-washing,” making a product seem eco-friendly when it’s not. Some are concerned that the “Fiber” line on the nutrition facts label may make people believe certain foods are healthier than they are.

Strangely enough, the initial controversy was that, unlike other calculations on the label, the FDA suddenly required any approved “fiber” ingredients to have at least one proven health benefit. This seemed unequal to naysayers.

Now that more fiber contributors are approved, objections on the other side say that some of the proven health benefits aren’t even related to being a fiber (for example, inulin has a positive effect on absorption of calcium, but that’s not usually what people are looking for when they want fiber). There are also more potential fiber ingredients being reviewed.

I’m not getting my undies in a bunch about this one, personally.

You can read all about the new label changes directly from the FDA here if you want more info.

Ready For More? Don’t be Tricked by Food Packaging

If you can’t view the video above, click Don’t be Tricked by Food Packaging! to see it directly on YouTube.

Do you think the new labels will be helpful? Do you use labels to help you decide what to buy?

Other Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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