Heads up, American consumers: The Nutrition Facts label is getting a significant update for the first time since it was introduced in 1994. The familiar label appears on all packaged foods and beverage containers in the U.S. and lets you know how many calories you're about to consume.
The label's analysis digs deeper than that. It also breaks down fat, carbohydrate and protein content and lists the amounts of sodium, cholesterol and certain nutrients. But evidence-based research has bolstered the understanding of nutrition, and the new label reflects that knowledge.
According to Kristen Frie, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, the new label can help you make healthier, informed choices in three key ways.
Limiting added sugars. While the old label just offered a total "sugars" number, the new label calls out "added sugars" as well. That's because nutrition experts like Frie are less concerned about the natural sugars we consume in the form of fruits, vegetables and dairy products. It's the added sugars — often listed on ingredients labels as healthy-sounding agave nectar, honey, concentrated fruit juice or brown rice syrup, in addition to table sugar (sucrose) — that need to be limited.
The American Heart Association recommends adults eat no more than six to nine teaspoons of added sugar a day, but Americans actually consume much more — about 17 teaspoons a day. Frie hopes the new label will help people reduce their added sugar intake.
Limiting unhealthy fats. In the '90s, when the original label debuted, low-fat diets were all the rage. But research has shown that good nutrition is less about the amount of fat you eat than the type of fat, so the "calories from fat" line has been deleted.
The new label continues to help you monitor your intake of unhealthy fats by listing specific amounts for both saturated fat (found in such foods as fatty meats, poultry skin and butter) and trans fat (vegetable shortening, fried foods and stick margarine, for example).
Getting enough essential nutrients. While the old label encouraged you to consume vitamins A and C by calling those out on the label, those lines have been deleted — turns out few Americans today have an A or C deficiency.
Instead, surveys show that many people are now coming up short on vitamin D and potassium. The new label lists both the actual amounts of those important nutrients included in the product, as well as the percent of the Daily Value it represents.
"We think this new label can really help people make better food choices," Frie says. "Because the 'calories' number will also be bigger and bolder, that can help people with weight management, too."
Federal law requires the new label to appear on products from large companies by Jan. 1, 2020; smaller companies have until Jan. 1, 2021, to comply.
Finally, remember that fresh fruits and vegetables aren't required to carry the label — so some of your healthiest food choices remain label-free and nutrition rich.