Pushing your grocery cart down the frozen food section may make you drool at the thought of what you’re going to munch on later for dinner… and possibly even a late-night snack.

This hunger, though, may soon be overcome with frustration when trying to read and compare nutritional labels as you think to yourself: “Is the Thai-style green curry chicken bowl healthier than the steamed mushroom and asparagus risotto?”

Required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on most packaged foods and beverages, nutritional labels provide information about macronutrients (such as fat, protein and carbohydrates, which are the calorie-containing nutrients), and micronutrients (which, according to internal medicine physician Jeffrey Fein, D.O., are “everything else”). Dr. Fein explains, “Nutritional labels can be pretty confusing, but I do think most people can get at least a good idea of the calories and the composition of a given food.”

The new nutritional label requirements

The FDA has confirmed a nutritional label makeover for 2020 to better “reflect new scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease,” beginning January 1. All large food and beverage manufacturers are now required to make several changes, with the most noticeable being:

1. A bigger, bolder calorie count. Calories will now be listed in a much more prominent and noticeable way directly underneath the serving sizes.

2. Removal of calories from fat. The FDA has proposed that the type of fat consumed is more important than the amount, causing them to remove this fact entirely. However, Dr. Fein rebuts, “In general, we want to consume more of our calories from carbohydrates and protein, and stick to a lower-fat diet, so I don’t completely agree with this move by the FDA.”

3. Introduction of dual column serving sizes. According to the FDA, serving sizes will better reflect how Americans eat today, as determined by research. Instead of showing the calorie count for, say, ¼ of a pint of ice cream, the whole product’s serving size will be listed. “This is important so manufacturers can’t skew the numbers to make a given food appear healthier or less calorie-dense than it actually is,” Dr. Fein says. “By sticking to realistic serving sizes, we can know just how unhealthy some of these foods actually are—especially if eaten on a regular basis!”

4. New line for added sugars. The amount of sugar that has been added during the processing of foods will be separated from the food’s natural sugars and visibly listed. “Avoiding foods with high amounts of added sugar is far more important that looking at the total sugar or carbohydrates on a given label,” recommends Dr. Fein.

5. New daily values. While the old label highlighted certain vitamins and minerals like Vitamin A and C, the FDA is now shifting the focus to different nutrients that Americans may not be getting enough of, simplifies Dr. Fein. “So we now will see Vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium instead of Vitamin A and C,” he explains.

The FDA’s motivation to update nutritional labels

“The United States has an ongoing obesity epidemic, and it’s the food that we eat that is the main culprit—so the FDA took the necessary steps to make the labeling more informative,” shares Dr. Fein. “With that being said, though, people need to remember that when looking at foods labels it is much more important to focus on what to limit (such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars), than to worry about macronutrients.”

“One of the most important things to remember, though, is that some of the healthiest foods cannot be found in a box and don’t have any labels—they’re found in the produce aisle!” says Sorah Miller, RDN, a dietician at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. “When we switch to more whole foods and decrease consumption of highly processed foods, the health benefits can be tremendous.”

Resources

Dr. Fein is a primary care physician at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group, a network of over 1,000 advanced providers throughout New Jersey. Visit HMHMedicalGroup.org for more information or to schedule an appointment.