5 Nutrition Facts label fixes we need now

New food labels are coming; here’s what Consumer Reports’ experts want to see changed

Last updated: February 27, 2014 03:45 PM

Do you sometimes feel like you need a Ph.D. in nutrition to decipher food labels? If so, help is on the way: The Food and Drug Administration is updating the Nutrition Facts label (the one on the package) for the first time in 20 years, with the support of first lady Michelle Obama. A lot has changed since 1994. Obesity has become a major public health issue, and some experts are now more concerned about calorie consumption—especially from added sugars—rather than fat intake. Plus, research shows that the public doesn’t understand Nutrition Facts labels. Although no one knows what the new labels will look like yet, the following improvements are what Consumer Reports’ dietitians think are essential right now.

1. There should be more focus on calories.

Knowing how many calories come from fat isn’t helpful because that figure reflects "good" and "bad" fats. For instance, all the calories in olive oil come from fat, but it’s considered a healthy fat. What’s more important is knowing the total number of calories per serving, since that affects your weight. Calories should also be prominently listed on the front of the package to make it easier for people to make better choices.

2. Serving sizes should be realistic.

Some manufacturers are misleading consumers by claiming that products meant for one person—such as a bottle of soda or a package of candy—contain two or more servings. A 20-ounce bottle of soda that lists 110 calories per serving may look more attractive than one with 275 calories per serving—until you notice that the 110 calorie bottle actually contains 2½ servings. In addition, some serving sizes are surprisingly small. For instance, a serving of ice cream is ½ cup, but most people might eat twice that amount. “Consumers shouldn’t have to do the math to figure out how many calories they’re consuming,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports dietitian. The good news is that some manufacturers have already adopted this approach.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, supports the government's move to make Nutrition Facts more consumer friendly. Read more of our food and nutrition coverage.  

3. Manufacturers should divulge the types of sugars in a food.

The current Nutrition Facts label clearly shows the amount of sugars in a serving, but it doesn’t separate added sugars from natural sugars. When nutrition experts say “cut back on sugars,” they aren’t talking about the natural sugars that are an inherent part of milk, yogurt, fruit, and even some vegetables. You want to limit added sugars, which come in a variety of forms, such as high fructose corn syrup, cane syrup, cane juice, rice syrup, and dextrose. “Natural sugars come packaged with nutrients, such as fiber, vitamin C, and calcium, while added sugars are empty calories,” Keating says. Most processed foods contain added sugars, and consuming too much of them can harm your health. In a new study published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine, adults who got 25 percent or more of their calories from added sugar were almost three times more likely to die from heart problems than those who consumed less.

4. Labels on breads, cereals, crackers, and pasta should specify the percentage of whole grains they contain.

Many manufacturers claim their products contain whole-wheat flour or whole grains, but they don’t always tell you how much. Since half of the grain servings you have in a day should be whole grains, if you knew that one type of cracker had 80 percent whole grain and another had just 20 percent, you’d be better equipped to make the right choice for you.

 5. Labels should highlight the nutrients you need to watch out for. 

Right now, you have to read the Nutrition Facts label carefully to figure out how much fiber, fat, and sodium is in a food. If manufacturers highlighted the nutrients you need to minimize (for example sugars, saturated fat, and sodium), you could quickly determine whether a food is healthy or not. Another change that would benefit many: Mandate that manufacturers include caffeine content on labels, since many people are sensitive to it. Currently, listing the caffeine count is voluntary.

—Deborah Pike Olsen

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