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Decoding the New Food Labels

You'll see bigger serving sizes and major shifts on sugar and fats in 2020

spinner image A senior African-American woman in her 60s shopping in a grocery store, carrying a shopping basket. She is reading the nutrition label on a bottle.
Kali Nine LLC/Getty Images

If your new year's resolution is to eat healthier, you may be in luck. Though food labels are notoriously confusing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just made them clearer by rolling out several important updates.

While changes have been in the works since 2016, most manufacturers had until this month to get into compliance. (Companies with less than $10 million in annual food sales have until Jan. 1, 2021, and manufacturers of single-ingredient sugars such as honey and maple syrup have until July 1, 2021, to make the changes.) “The previous label had been around for more than 20 years, but how much people eat and drink in one serving has really changed since then, as has some of the research around certain nutrients,” says Angel Planells, a Seattle nutritionist and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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Here's a look at some key changes — and what they mean for those over 50 in particular:

A more realistic serving size

To better reflect what people really consume in one sitting, packages that are between one and two servings — like a 15-ounce can of soup — are now required to be labeled as a single serving. The thinking, says Claudine Kavanaugh, director of the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling at the FDA, is that most people will consume the entire can (or bag, or box) at once. If a package holds more than two servings, like a pint of ice cream, manufacturers must now provide “dual-column” labels to show, side by side, the number of calories and nutrients per serving and per package. “With dual-column labels, people can more easily understand how many calories and nutrients they are getting if they consume the entire package at one time,” Kavanaugh says. This is particularly important information for older adults: “As you age, your metabolism tends to decrease and you become less active, which means you really can't afford to eat as much in one sitting,” Planells says.

Calling out added sugars

 In the past, manufacturers have had to list only “total sugars” on food labels. But this doesn't differentiate between added sugars — those mixed in intentionally, which raise the risk of health conditions such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes — and sugars that are naturally present in whole foods such as fruit and dairy. Now labels have to include both. “This is particularly important for older adults, who are at greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and who really need to watch their consumption of added sugars,” says Maria Elena Fraga, diabetes program manager for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. The FDA recommends that no more than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugar, and the American Heart Association is even stricter: It sets limits of 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men, and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women.

spinner image Side-By-Side Comparison of the Old and New Nutrition Facts Label

New nutrient information

Vitamin D and potassium — both important for bone health — are now required to be listed on nutrition labels. This is important for older adults, since they're more likely to be low in these nutrients, says Fraga. Vitamins A and C will no longer be listed on labels, she adds, because most people tend to get enough of each in their diet.

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A focus on certain fats

In the past, food labels not only contained information on total fat, saturated fat and trans fat, but also total calories from all of those types of fat combined. But the latter has been removed “because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount,” says Kavanaugh. Specifically, you should try to avoid trans fat, and to limit saturated fat, which can drive up cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends getting less than 6 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. So if you eat about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 should come from saturated fat. (That's about 13 grams, and you'll find grams as the measurement listed on the label.)

Bolded calorie counts

On the new label, the number of calories is prominently displayed in a large, bold font. “It really stands out — you can't miss it at all,” Planells says. This update is intended to make you more mindful about what you're eating. It's also important to realize that the daily percentage value you'll see on the right of the label is based on consuming 2,000 calories a day, a number that's high for many older adults. A 55-year-old sedentary woman, for example, requires only about 1,600 calories, according to Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Keep that in mind when looking at the daily percentage value for macronutrients such as carbs and fat. Similarly, when looking at sodium, make sure that you focus on the total number of milligrams, and not the daily percentage value. This is because the percentages on labels are based on a recommendation of 2,300 mg of sodium per day, but most people over age 50 should aim for less than 1,500 mg, Planells says.

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