Major Updates to FDA’s Nutrition Facts Label Target America’s Sugar Problem

The First Lady announced updates to the Nutrition Facts Label last Friday, reflecting 20 years of underutilized health research.
May 22, 2016, 9:30pm
Image: YouTube/Humans Eating.

A great deal has changed in the last two decades, but strangely enough, the FDA's ubiquitous nutrition labels gracing over 800,000 pre-packaged food products have remained relatively untouched. That is, until last Friday, when Michelle Obama's Let's Move! program announced the FDA's modernized Nutrition Facts label.

When the FDA last significantly updated its Nutrition Facts label in 1994, over half of Americans were considered overweight; now, two-thirds are. In the intervening years, fad confections like Go-Gurt and the artery-clogging Fruit by the Foot flooded the market, leaving behind sweet memories of dental visits and ill-fitting swimsuits. Diabetes diagnoses among Americans have nearly tripled.

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Ever since the First Lady moved to Washington in January 2009, she's dedicated herself to boosting nutritional awareness. Finally, she's reaping what she's sewn.

"You will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you're buying is actually good for our kids," the the First Lady said.

The FDA's new label, which is targeting sugar-heavy pre-packaged foods, will benefit from the last twenty years of scientific research into Americans' eating habits.

"Percent daily values" will be featured on the new labels, so consumers will know what percent of a day's recommended daily sugar intake a product contains. In addition, the new labels will measure for "added sugars," which distinguishes between natural sugars (i.e. in fruits) and ones added later by the manufacturer. General Mills, The Sugar Association, and other behemoth food companies opposed this, arguing that the difference between "added" and "non-added" sugars is superficial.

Vitamin D and potassium will also be listed to reflect research indicating that Americans are deficient in these nutrients.

Finally, the new Nutrition Facts label will ensure that "calories" and serving sizes will be visible and not misleading. For example, the health facts for a pint of ice cream will refer to the whole pint and not just an awkward half-cup. Separate "per serving" and "per package" labels will reflect the amount of food we actually eat instead of an apparently arbitrary amount—the current serving size for a bag of Lay's chips is 28 grams, or 15 chips.

While the new labels won't be mandatory for another two years, their ambition is dramatically reducing Americans' sugar intake. In the coming weeks, expect more big, bad food manufacturers to spew vitriol at these apparently innocuous changes to the iconic Nutrition Facts label. Their anger, in most cases, validates the necessity for change.