FDA Finalizes Nutrition Labels That Highlight Added Sugar

The updated label reflects research that shows how hard it is to consume key nutrients and maintain calorie limits in a diet overwhelmed by sugar. The label will be a legacy of First Lady Michelle Obama's focus on better nutrition to combat childhood obesity.

An updated Nutrition Facts Label will be find its way onto food packaging by 2018, now that the FDA has finally approved an overhaul to the 20-year-old design.

The new label, based on evidence that informed both the 2010 and 2015 updates to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, requires food manufacturers to highlight added sugars and based calorie counts on more realistic serving sizes. While the FDA says the “iconic” look remains, the label features a major design change: much larger type for the overall calorie count per serving.

FDA announced the changes late Friday, nearly a year after the “Added Sugars” requirement was discussed and more than 2 years after initial changes to the label were proposed.

For the Obama Administration, the food label represents a lasting reminder of First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to promote healthy eating among children, amid high levels of backlash from industry and school nutrition leaders. Some groups feel the first lady’s efforts have gone too far and created financial losses for suburban school districts, where children routinely threw out fruits and vegetables on their trays or declined to buy lunch at all.

“I am thrilled that the FDA has finalized a new and improved Nutrition Facts label that will be on food products nationwide,” said First Lady Michelle Obama in a statement from FDA. “This is going to make a real difference in providing families across the country the information they need to make healthy choices.”

“For more than 20 years, Americans have relied on the Nutrition Facts label as a leading source of information regarding calories, fat and other nutrients to help them understand more about the foods they eat in a day,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD, who is a cardiologist. “The updated label makes improvements to this valuable resource so consumers can make more informed food choices—one of the most important steps a person can take to reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity.”

Professional medical societies have placed more emphasis on nutrition and lifestyle choices at recent scientific meetings, now that the Affordable Care Act places a higher priority on preventive steps to reduce healthcare spending. At the most recent gathering of the American College of Cardiology (ACC), a half-day lifestyle intensive kicked off with Kim Allan Williams, MD, then the ACC president, discussing his decision to follow a vegan diet.

The decision to require manufacturers to break out “Added Sugars” separately is rooted in studies that show it is difficult to consume recommended nutrients and stay within calorie goals if more than 10% of a day’s calories come from added sugars. For most Americans, the percentage is closer to 13%, and nutrition advocacy groups have taken aim at sugar-sweetened beverages, especially soda, as the best way to cut out added sugar. The line for added sugars comes under the “Total Sugars” section of the label.

Percent Daily Value. Food components such as fat, nutrients, and carbohydrates will still be calculated as a percentage of the daily value of a typical diet, but the term is now defined on the label based on a 2000-calorie diet. The percentages will be updated to reflect new requirements for stating serving size.

Nutrients. Other significant changes to the Nutrition Facts Label include the addition of vitamin D and potassium, based on research that shows Americans often lack adequate levels of these nutrients in their diets. Vitamin D is important for bone health, and potassium helps control blood pressure. Calcium and iron will remain on the label as well. Vitamin A and C are being eliminated because deficiencies in these areas have become less common, although manufacturers are allowed to list these nutrients if they wish.

Listing Fat. The new label will continue to require listings for “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat,” but calories from fat will be eliminated, because new research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.

Most food manufacturers have until July 26, 2018, to make all changes, but smaller products (with less than $10 million in annual sales) will have an extra year. Foods imported to the United States must meet labeling requirements.