How to Read the New Nutrition Facts Panel: Explained by an RD

In my final post on the new nutrition facts panel, I summarize the key things you need to know to make your grocery decisions. Ultimately, the goal of the new nutrition label is to help you as a consumer make informed choices about the foods and beverages you choose to include in your diet. Here I break down how to use the label to find healthful options on the grocery shelf.

Nutrition Panel Explained

The updates to the Nutrition Facts Panel include specific font formatting to make key points easier for consumers to see.

1. Choose Real Food Ingredients

Before you even think about looking at the Nutrition Facts Panel, look at the list of ingredients. Aim for products that contain mostly foods or ingredients you recognize and would consider cooking or baking with yourself.

2. Analyze Serving Size

Next, look to the serving size and number of servings per container. Manufacturers will be encouraged to update their product serving sizes to better reflect what most people actually consume in one sitting. One BIG change on the new panel is an enlarged font for calories per serving. Though most nutrition experts would agree that all calories are not created equal (meaning 100 calories of soda does not provide the same benefit to our bodies as 100 calories of sunflower seeds), understanding the amount of calories one serving of food provides can be a huge help when managing your personal diet. Remember that eating two servings means you’ll consume double the calories

3. Look for Nutrient Content

After that, look to the % Daily Value to see how much one serving of a food contributes to the amount you should aim to consume each day. Though these values are not individualized to you, but rather to the 2,000 calorie diet intended to meet the needs of the average healthy adult in the U.S., they serve as a helpful indication of the amount of nutrients one serving of food provides. Remember these values are based on a single serving of the food. If you eat less, you’ll get less than what’s displayed. If you eat more, you’ll get more.

4. Observe the Big Picture

Don’t look for nutrients in isolation, but for the combination of nutrition a food provides. For example, a well-rounded food will provide some combination of fat, protein and carbohydrate in balance.

5. Fiber Forward

Most of us get plenty of carbohydrates in our diet but not enough fiber. Use this tip to determine which products give you the best fiber “bang” for your carbohydrate “buck.” For grain products, look for a ratio of total carbohydrates to fiber of at least 10:1. First, identify the grams of carbohydrates in a serving of a food. For an 88 Acres Chocolate and Sea Salt bar, that is 22 grams. Divide it by 10, and get 2.2 grams. Since the total fiber of 3 grams is more than the total carbohydrates divided by 10, that indicates that the seed bar is a fiber-full carbohydrate option!

New Nutrition Label Comparison

Image source: FDA

Major layout changes include displaying the % Daily Value for potassium and vitamin D instead of vitamin C and vitamin A, and a new line item for added sugar content. 

You may also notice that some of the Daily Value percentages have changed. The total recommended amount of daily fat, fiber and potassium has increased, while carbohydrates has decreased. The changes are small, but represent the evolution of our understanding of the healthiest average diet! Read on for a bit of nutrition nerd history on the label itself. 

Brief History of Nutrition Labeling in the U.S.

The FDA requires that food companies add a Nutrition Facts Panel to packaged foods to help consumers understand how a given food or beverage fits into a healthy diet. It is designed to agree with the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), and UL (upper limits) in selected “nutrients of concern” - those that Americans either tend to overconsume or not consume enough.

American packaged foods have not always been labeled with nutrition information. The first Nutrition Facts Panel was introduced in 1990, which the FDA hoped would help not only increase awareness about foods consumers chose to purchase and serve to their families, but also nudge consumers toward healthier options. It also standardized health claims (like “low-fat” or “reduced sodium”) allowed on food packaging.

Over the most recent decade, many new regulations have passed into law in response to both evolving nutrition science and consumer demand, including easily identifiable allergen statements on ingredient lists and trans fat declarations on the panel itself. The incoming changes are the first update to the Nutrition Facts Panel in 25 years, and are detailed in the FDA’s Final Rule.

While originally slated for implementation across the country by June 2018 (and 2019 for smaller companies), the FDA recently announced that it plans to extend this date. As of June 28th, 2017, per the FDA release, “The framework for the extension will be guided by the desire to give industry more time and decrease costs, balanced with the importance of minimizing the transition period during which consumers will see both the old and the new versions of the label in the marketplace.”

Contributed by Hannah Meier, 88 Acres Nutritionist and a registered dietitian and food advocate based in Boston, Massachusetts. She completed her combined Bachelor’s in Dietetics and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 2014 and moved to Massachusetts shortly after to complete her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is now pursuing her Master’s in Nutrition Communication and Behavior Change at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She believes nutrition can and should be accessible, easy, fun, and flexible. An avid runner and budding yogi, she practices living life in balance, using food as fuel and helping others find a happy relationship with food and exercise. Her favorite 88 Acres product is a schmear of pumpkin seed butter spread on a slice of sprouted grain toast, topped with pomegranate seeds.