- Kirsten Cheney | dreamstime.com
It's no secret that many Americans could benefit from eating better. Over the last few decades, the country has seen a steady increase of health issues such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, all attributed at least partially to poor diet. Not only have our food choices racked up billions in national health care bills, some of them are killing us.
In response to this public health crisis, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration changed the nutrition facts label required on grocery store products and made it mandatory that chain restaurants provide menu nutrition information.
On store shelves, shoppers are starting to see the impact of the 2016 update of the original 1992 nutrition facts label. While the implementation deadline has been pushed out to 2020 for large companies and 2021 for smaller companies (those that do less than $10 million in sales), many products already carry the revised label.
For chain restaurants with 20 or more locations, May 5 marked the deadline for a brand-new regulation (part of the Affordable Care Act) requiring calorie counts on menus. Upon customer request, the resturants must also provide more detailed nutrition information similar to the packaged food label.
This sounds good, right? But sometimes it's still hard to know how to interpret all this information. We turned to a local expert, Wendy Hess of Burlington, who has worked as a registered dietician for 30 years and holds a master's of science in food regulation from Northeastern University. As a food industry consultant, Hess helps clients, including restaurant company Darden, owner of Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, and packaged-foods companies of all sizes comply with regulation and labeling requirements.
Science-based, clearly presented nutrition information at stores and restaurants will allow consumers to compare similar options and make educated decisions, said Hess. At Olive Garden, that might mean ordering the stuffed mushroom appetizer over the spinach artichoke dip for 400 fewer calories. And at the grocery store, Hess says, "The beauty is that you can pick up two yogurts and they will have an equivalent serving size, and you can compare fat or added sugars and make a good choice for you."
1. These are bigger and bolder. If you read nothing else, read these first.
Gone from the new label is calories from fat. Hess explains that was a vestige of the low-fat-diet trend and is no longer considered useful. "Not all fat is bad," she notes.
Serving sizes have been standardized across similar products for easy comparison. They are also based on the quantity people customarily consume, not what they should consume. Small bags of salty snacks, like potato chips, represent a notable exception, Hess explains. Even though a two-ounce bag, for example, is technically two servings, Americans reliably eat whole small bags alone, so those labels will reflect the nutrients of a single serving and of an entire bag.
2. Fat and Fiber, Total Carbs
Recommended daily intakes of some nutrients (daily values or percent DV) have been revised based on new research, which shows that higher overall fat and dietary fiber as a percent of daily diet can be beneficial, but total carb consumption should be lower than previously thought.
Percent daily values are still based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet but will obviously vary based on age, gender, activity level and health goals. If you're trying to lose weight, for example, you might be aiming for 1,500 calories, Hess says.
For nutrients that may have negative health impacts such as sodium, saturated fat and added sugars, look for a low daily value of 5 percent or less. For those with potential positive impacts, such as fiber, calcium or iron, look for 20 percent or more.
3. But this fat is (mostly) bad
Trans fats, like partially hydrogenated shortening and stick margarine, were added as a label line in 2006. This month, June, is the deadline for food manufacturers to have removed all added trans fats. (Small amounts that occur naturally in animal products are not of concern.)
The list of micronutrients has been updated to reflect current research on what has the most impact on Americans' health and includes amount per serving, not just percent of daily value. Most Americans now get enough vitamins A and C, so they're no longer required on the label, but potassium, for example, was added because those with diabetes-related kidney disease may need to monitor their intake.
4. Sugar Rush
The biggest deal in the new label is the new added sugars category. Research shows that Americans consume too many of these empty calories. It distinguishes sugars that occur naturally in a food, such as lactose in dairy and fructose in fruit, from any concentrated sugars added during processing. The difference, Hess explains, is that the naturally occurring sugars "carry with them the vitamins and minerals inherent in natural, whole foods."
Fructose from apples cooked down into natural applesauce, for example, is not listed under added sugars. But any extra sweetener added during manufacture, even in the form of concentrated fruit juice or maple syrup, is listed under added sugars. Some Vermont producers are concerned about the requirement that labels on 100 percent pure maple syrup and honey list added sugars. But the FDA reasons that because consumers almost exclusively use these products as added sugars — on pancakes or in cooking, for example — they should be labeled as such.