In January of 2018, the FDA finally ceded to public demands for more transparency on nutrition labels, and the changes are beginning to roll out on packaged foods on store shelves nationwide. For those of you who actually read them, it may significantly change what and how much you eat.

The standard nutrition label has long contained the basic facts about the contents of a packaged food product, including the serving size, number of servings, vitamins, minerals and percent of daily macros based on the average 2,000 calorie diet. In addition to what was included on the label, perhaps what was more important was the information that was assumed or omitted. We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, a word on our relationship to calories. Many of us have adopted a very basic and incomplete philosophy about how to manage our health and regulate our weight. It can generally be summed up as “calories in, calories out”. We estimate the number of calories we should reasonably consume in a day minus the difference of calories burned through exercise to justify our rate of consumption, striving for a zero-sum game. “Well, I definitely deserve these powdered donuts for breakfast today because I totally crushed my workout yesterday.” Or, “Yeah, I just finished a 32oz Mountain Dew and can of Pringles during the game, but I’ll just do an extra 40 crunches or 20 minutes on the treadmill tomorrow. Problem solved!” The real problem is that not all calories are created equal, and do not provide the same nutritional value or energetic output. An 8-year old can tell you that 100 calories of broccoli is better for you than 100 calories of Diet Coke. What we’re not focused on is the real qualitative value of the calories we consume, including where they come from. Thankfully as the public begins to better educate itself about the imperatives of eating real food (and get more present to the damaging effects of eating garbage all these years), we’re also paying closer attention to what’s really inside what we eat.

 

Let’s have a look at what’s changed.

1) The number of total calories per serving is big and bold.

This is not a really big deal, but at least makes it easier to see at a glance instead of couching it in with all the other fine print.

 

2) The average serving size has changed to reflect real eating habits.

We Americans like to eat. A lot. So while a food label may indicate that a serving of ice cream only contains 250 calories, we conveniently overlook the fact that a serving size is only one 1/2 cup. Really, when’s the last time you sat down to watch a movie with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked in your hand, ate about 5 spoonfuls, and returned it to the freezer? 750 calories and 69 grams of sugar later, we may as well have skipped paying attention to the label all together. The fact is that the recommended serving size listed on most labels is totally unrelated to the actual serving size that the average snacker will consume. Thus, these have now been adjusted upward to more accurately reflect how much someone will actually eat in a single sitting.

3) The most important update – added sugars

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been deluded into thinking that as long as we monitor our overall daily intake/output of calories, we’ll come out on top. Some have even gotten slightly savvier and begun paying attention to macros, like the amount of protein, fat and carbs that they consume throughout the day, though there is also a lot of misleading information here too, as marketers love to brand their products as “low fat/no fat!” to appeal to the body image-conscious consumer. What has been conspicuously, but not accidentally absent from the public view for many decades is the amount of sugar added to a product, as well as the % of recommended daily intake.
I cannot stress enough how important this is.

If you look at most nutrition labels that have not yet adopted the new changes, you will see that the % of daily value information on the right side lists the quantities for fat, cholesterol, sodium and carbohydrates, but conveniently omits any reference to the % of daily recommended sugar intake. This is no mistake. In fact, lobbyists in the sugar industry successfully influenced legislators and the FDA to not require this information on food labels, likely with the awareness of how damning it could be when consumers started paying attention. Consider that a 20 ounce bottle of Mountain Dew contains a whopping 77 grams of sugar (a little over 20 teaspoons)! This is about 200% of the recommended daily sugar intake for an adult male. With people consuming multiple high-fructose corn syrup drinks per day, super sweetened coffee drinks and a host of other decadent snacks, it’s no wonder that sugar is doing serious damage to our health.

The truth is, you cannot avoid all sugars, nor should you. It comes in many forms, from fruit, dairy, grains and beyond, and some sugar can be good for you, as its converted into glucose and quick energy. What there is to look out for, however, is the added sugars. These are put into our foods by design in order to make them more tasty and appealing, (and often to compensate for the lack of flavor when fat is removed) and also to keep us coming back for more. It’s no secret that many of us have now become addicted to sugar, and its effects on public health are now painfully clear. Type 2 diabetes, obesity, liver damage, coronary heart disease, and more. We have long taught our kids to say no to drugs. Now it’s time to for us all to start saying no to excess sugar, as we’re too informed to continue on this gastronomic path of self-destruction.

Thankfully, we’re beginning to shed light on vital information that has long remained in the shadows. Food manufacturers are finally being held more accountable to disclose what they are putting into the foods and beverages we consume, and how much of it we should actually have if we’re invested in our health and longevity.

 

Now it’s up to us to pay closer attention, and to consume consciously.