I wrote this post on May 20 -21, 2016 after the FDA announced new labeling requirements for packaged food manufacturers. The manufacturers will be required to provide additional information and modified information on the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP). This applies to all companies, but smaller ones have longer to comply. The FDA announced July 2018 as the official effective date, but we know from past FDA associated labeling initiatives that this date could change.
The FDA press release - which you can access here - offers highlights of the changes, and many news sources have covered the story. What I want to do is put the changes in the context of my blog re: nutrition disclosures that help us consume fewer calories across venues.
So does this change help? Probably - or to some extent. First, the revised labels have an increased 'reference serving size'. The noted serving size may merely be a declaration to allow the nutrient content to be calculated, because people rarely (if ever) dole out cups, ounces, or grams and even if they did, it would be more cups, ounces, or grams than the label suggests. The update, a slightly larger serving size, appears to be a compromise between what people are actually eating and what they are supposed to be eating. In other words, it is probably still not realistic. One example of a serving size change involves ice cream. Instead of a 1/2 cup, a label will say 2/3 cup. I imagine most people scoop out more than 2/3 a cup of ice cream for themselves, therefore, if a person wanted to know the actual calories or sugar they consumed, they'd have to do the math (just as before). Also people may think that the label refers to an actual cup of some sort, not a measuring cup.
A similar issue with serving sizes is unchanged. They are not exactly uniform across similar products - the serving sizes may all be a 1/2 cup but the weight - the precise measurement - will vary. Boxes of cereal and cartons of ice cream, as opposed to say, a can of soda, are actually figured by weight, grams usually. So a serving size might be 2/3 cup on five cartons of ice cream but the weight of each 2/3 cup could be different. So to be frugal with our calories like we are with our dollars, we need to know the calories per unit. You don't get to see an orange shelf tag with this information but you can do the math, e.g. calories per serving divided by grams in a serving gives you the calories/gram.
Another change on the NFP is that sugar grams will come with a % DV. I've never been much of a fan of the % daily value disclosure on a label. It is based on a 2000 calorie/day diet and the majority of women, myself included, require less, say 1500 to 1800, so again, math is required. There is a trick that can make the percentages useful. If the item on the label is a nutrient of concern (meaning we get too much of it, like calories, sugar and sodium), look for a low %DV. Low is 10% or less. There are very few nutrients that Americans lack, but for those, look for high %DV. For example, it would be great to have products with vitamin D and calcium at 20% or higher.
Small packages, ones that people are likely to consume all at once even if they 'technically' contain 2 or 3 servings, will now have dual labels. There will be a column with the serving size nutrient information and a column with the whole package nutrient information. For items like a 20 ounce soda, where the expectation or custom is to drink the entire bottle in one 'sitting' the nutrient and calorie content will only be for the entire package (who drinks 8 ounces of a 20 ounce soda and saves the rest for tomorrow?). BTW, that is why I go for diet sodas in 12 ounce cans, I do not need 20 ounces, its too much; and for some diet sodas, the trace calories will become meaningful beyond 12 ounces.
There are a couple more changes, which are not as relevant to the theme of my blog. You can review them by clicking on the above link.
I'll end with two important things the new labels do not address. The information is still on the back of the package and the rule doesn't amend the new vending machine law to include sugar grams with the point of purchase calorie disclosure. Because the Nutrition Facts Panel is still on the back of the package the prospective buyer has to pick up and turn each product around (the new rule does not mandate or standardize front of pack labels and this is a disappointment). And consequently, this rule won't help us purchase low 'added sugar' snacks from vending machines because we can't see the back of the package at the time of purchase.