New year, new FDA food labels

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published January 21, 2020

Key Takeaways

We’ve all done it—grabbed a snack in the break room (probably something that’s less-than-healthy like potato chips or chocolate chip cookies)—and ate it while running to see the next patient. And before we know it, we’re down to the last broken remnants at the bottom of the bag. On occasion, we may actually pay enough attention to the label to realize that we’ve eaten five servings instead of just one.

Knowing the exact serving sizes of packaged foods is key to correctly reading nutrition labels and following a healthy diet. But, until now, that hasn’t been easy.

To make it easier for consumers to understand the nutritional value and ingredients of the foods they are eating, the FDA has issued an edict as to what manufacturers are required to include on packaged food labels. The requirements went into effect on January 1, 2020. Food manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual sales are required to immediately implement the new labels, and smaller companies have until January 1, 2021, to comply.

Among other changes, the new guidelines call for two side-be-side columns showing the nutritional information for a single serving and the entire package of food.

“The new Nutrition Facts label has updated serving sizes for many foods. We know that Americans are eating differently, and the amount of calories and nutrients on the label is required to reflect what people actually eat and drink–not a recommendation of what to eat or drink. The new label, including this dual column layout, will drive consumers’ attention to the calories and Percent Daily Value of nutrients that they are actually consuming,” according to a statement issued by Claudine Kavanaugh, PhD, MPH, RD, director, Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling, FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, College Park, MD.

Because package size has been shown to affect how much people eat, packages that contain 1 and 2 servings must label calories and nutrients as one serving. This is because people will usually consume it in one sitting. Examples of this include 15-oz cans of soup or 20-oz cans of soda.

For foods and beverages that are more than a single serving but can be eaten in one or more sittings, labels must include dual columns to clearly show the number of calories and nutrients for both a single serving and the entire package. Examples of this include pints of ice cream or 24-oz bottles of soda.

New FDA food labels


The refreshed design will also include larger, bolder lettering and the inclusion of more nutrients. New labels will also reflect updated information about nutrition science. Here are a few examples of what you'll be seeing from now on:

  • Calories will be displayed in bold text and in a larger font size. In addition, serving sizes will have to include the whole product’s serving size. Previously, manufacturers could list the calories for a half-serving (to offer the illusion of fewer calories). Furthermore, nutritional information for full serving sizes will be required. The goal of this is to make it easier to figure out the nutritional value of what you are eating.

  • Calories from fat will be removed from the labels, but total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat will remain. Researchers have recently shown that the type of fat a food contains is more important than the actual amount of fat.

  • Manufacturers will also now be required to include the amount of sugar they’ve added during the processing of foods. This information will be listed separately from the natural sugars already present in the foods. Why is this important? Added sugars have no nutritional value, as opposed to natural sugars, which can contain fiber, potassium, and other nutrients.

  • Manufacturers must include the actual amount and percentage Daily Value of vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. However, including the actual amounts for other vitamins and minerals is voluntary:

    • Potassium will be included on all labels. It’s an essential mineral that’s lacking in many American diets. The daily recommendation for potassium intake is 3,500 to 4,700 mg. The FDA hopes that inclusion of this information will increase awareness of daily potassium intakes.

    • Vitamin D will be listed in micrograms underneath macro ingredients on food labels. It’s a nutrient that is also lacking in many American diets. The recommended daily intake is 400-800 IU, depending on age and health. Again, the FDA hopes that including this information will increase intake awareness of this important vitamin.

    • Because most American diets satisfy the recommended daily amounts of vitamins A and C, manufacturers may now choose whether to list these vitamins on nutrition labels.

  • The footnote at the bottom of each label will also be changed to better explain what the percentage Daily Value means: “The % Daily Value tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”

So, the next time you hit the vending machine in the break room or staff lounge—or grab whatever snack is at hand because you have 0 minutes before seeing your next patient—remember to check the label on the back of the package. They’re new and improved—thanks to the FDA—and will make it a lot easier to eat healthy.

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