by Marion Nestle
Feb 27 2014

FDA’s new food label: much improved!

The FDA is proposing an updated food label today.  How’s this for a surprise? I like it!

First, consider the old one that went into effect 20 years ago:


In developing this label, the FDA tested several designs.  The public could not understand any of the prototypes, so the FDA picked this one because it was the best of a bad lot (the least worst).

If you think it should be easy to revise, consider that its explanation required about 900 pages in the Federal Register of January 6, 1993.

Now take a look at the FDA’s proposed changes:


The FDA also proposes an alternate design that clarifies which Daily Values are floors (“eat more”) and which are ceilings (“eat less”):

FLalt (1)

Another improvement: updating of portion sizes.  The old ones were based on serving sizes reported in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  The new label recognizes that portion sizes are much larger than they used to be.

Screenshot 2014-02-26 12.42.38 - Copy

The ice cream example: A serving used to be a laughable half cup.  Now it’s a cup.

The soda example: A serving used to be 8 ounces.  Now it’s a more realistic 12—or 20—ounces.

The other significant changes:

  • Require listing “added sugars.”   Yes!
  • For packages that are likely to be eaten at one time, require “dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” information.  
  • Require the declaration of potassium and vitamin D.  Vitamins A and C can be listed voluntarily.
  • Revise some Daily Values to reflect recent science.
  • Remove “calories from fat” (the kind of fat matters more than the amount).
  • Emphasize calories, serving sizes and Percent Daily Value.

The details will come in a Federal Register notice to be released today (see links below).

My take?  These changes should make the label easier for everyone to understand and use.

My preference?  I like the Alternate Proposal, and can’t wait to see if anyone else does.

The FDA will be collecting comments for 90 days.  Weigh in!  The food industry certainly will.

In the meantime, congratulations to the FDA for a job well done and to Let’s Move! for inspiring the changes and moving them along.

FDA Resources

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  • Thumbdriver

    Marion, any thoughts on getting rid of the Trans Fats section if FDA goes ahead and bans it? Seems like it would reduce the clutter since it will always be 0 grams.

  • Michele Jacobson

    The glaring omission on this otherwise improved labeling is the lack of GMO accountability. Once the FDA takes some responsibility for that, I’ll be duly impressed.

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  • Barbara Schibly MD

    Well, I’m going to weigh in on the opposite side.
    I dont like the FDA promoting the government’s position on how much of what is good for you and bad for you. I’m referring in particular to the “eat less saturated fat and cholesterol” on the proposed label above. I don’t think there is good evidence to support the governments claim that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol promote heart disease.
    The Framingham study, the study that is often cited as showing that dietary fat and cholesterol promote heart disease, actually showed the opposite: In that large prospective study those who at the most saturated fat, those who ate the most cholesterol – and who ate the most calories – had lower levels of serum cholesterol and weighed less than those who ate less saturated fat and cholesterol.

    The government needs to get out of the nutrition business. The the less the FDA does, the better.

  • lindseyk

    I like the original proposal, although I don’t agree that adding the “added sugars” category is beneficial. Ultimately a carb is carb, whether you find it in an apple or a piece of chocolate cake.

    I think a MAJOR problem of food labels is the DV%s. The example label has 37g of carbs per serving listed at 12% of the DV. That means they recommend 308g per day! I don’t subscribe to the Atkins or Paleo camps, but 308g is far too many for the average adult.

    Most people have no idea how many grams of a specific nutrient they should eat (or even what a gram really looks like), and they rely almost exclusively on the DV. If we change anything about labels, it should be this.

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  • justjuliebean

    I think the added sugars is great stuff, also the more realistic serving size. The less opportunity for denial, the better. And please, keep your fad diets out of this.

  • Dave James

    So Barbara MD
    Well if government stays out as you suggest. Who should police the food company’s to keep us safe? Who? the companies who use GMO products and do not want us to know.about them Plus you this is about more than just fat content and serving size on the info labels. I suggest the people who are being paid to BS the consumers should speak true facts and not pseudoscience !!!!

  • Lee

    I agree that the government should be involved in making sure we are safe and our tax dollars should not be wasted. I do like the new food label that the FDA is proposing as it’s more understandable. It really needed to be updated and this was a great time to do it.

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  • expatCanuck

    Given the comparatively poor health of the average American compared with populations in other industrialized nations, and the fact that America spends more money per capita on health care for an overall worse outcome, I’d suggest that government oversight is well and truly warranted.

  • SAO

    I really like an “Added Sugars” section. I’ve been struck by how added sugars are creeping into products that never used to have them.

    I’ve found added sugar in vegetable broth, canned bean (not baked beans, plain kidney beans), canned tomatoes.
    All in brands that I used to trust.

    I hope they highlight added sugars clearly.

  • gardenjon

    Hi Marion,
    Can you clarify where/how we can weigh in with the FDA with our thoughts on the proposed changes?

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  • Ilana

    I am confused about the omissions of Vit A & C, and the introduction of Vit D and Potassium. Why is this a positive change? Vitamin A (as beta carotene) is very important. While Vitamin D is also very important, does it naturally occur in food, or would food need to be artificially fortified in order to contain it? If the latter, wouldn’t it make more sense to have an education campaign to get people outside more often?

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  • Joyce Liu

    Dr. Nestle:

    Given the misleading nature of our nation’s iconic “Nutritional Facts” labels and relatively poor health of the average American citizen, I agree with you wholeheartedly that the newly proposed rules are definitely a step in the right direction on the part of the Food and Drug Administration for helping consumers understand dietary information on food packaging. However, I question whether these changes alone are enough to empower the American people to make healthier decisions and how much they will contribute towards the ultimate goal of national wellness promotion. While it is undeniable that updating the serving sizes is a much needed reality check for an unaware public of the actual, frightening amount of calories disclosed on food packaging, I strongly believe that in addition to changes in greater clarity and relevance of nutritional information, there needs to be dietary recommendations or some sort of guidance in print accompanying these changes. While your notes on the ice cream example are correct -the old serving size was certainly laughable at a half cup- adjusting nutritional facts to the reality of the growth in American serving sizes is a bit of a double-edged sword. Printing labels in line with today’s American appetite provides the public with more useful information, but I’m wondering if you might also agree it will standardize the enlarged portion sizes as too a permanent a societal norm? Without additional caution from the government, it’s entirely possible that the American people will interpret this as a recommended increase in portion size, or that future generations will see this as the basic serving size they will inevitably push the limits of too. I’m all for empowering consumers and trying to address the issue of obesity that’s plagued the health of United States to far too great a degree, but I don’t think I’m alone in advocating for more education on the implications of the new serving sizes. Even something as small as a line of text on the new labels saying “serving size is NOT a recommendation for regular portioning” underneath the other serving information could be very important.

    I feel I must reiterate that I do see a lot of good happening in the FDA’s proposed changes. As Scott Faber, former food industry lobbyist and current VP of government affairs for Environmental Working Group, has stated, “this administration has done more than any administration in history to make our food more affordable, nutritious, and transparent.” Given all the work the First Lady has put into the “Let’s Move!” campaign and the scrutiny the food industry’s been put under by this administration as a whole, I have to agree with his statement. Nevertheless, it’s best to still be critical of what the changes still lack or question whether the degree of the current propositions are enough. Yes, daily values have been revised to reflect recent nutritional science findings. However, in the case of sodium, the FDA still has only lowered the amount recommended daily from 2400 mg to 2300mg, while the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation calls for a maximum of 1500 mg daily. I really wonder if such a marginal reduction really help reverse the damage already caused by the outdated nutrition information available? These changes won’t go into effect for at least another few years down the line, and in that time I for one hope the FDA will go much further in advocating for nutrition information based on more stringent dietary guidelines.

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  • mtskier8

    I think the proposed change is a slight improvement, but we’re still stuck in the exact same mold. I support a radical change in appearance, so that people who are looking at the label will need to take the extra few minutes to educate themselves on it. The nutrition label obviously isn’t going to change our nutrition issues, but it’s a step in the right direction. I think added sugar is a must- a lot of people don’t realize that milk products have natural sugar. Plus, people might start to question why other foods have added sugars.

    To answer another question, vitamin D is not found in naturally in many food sources (mackerel and salmon are good sources). It is largely supplemented. I think the thought is that almost everyone meets the Vitamin C and Vitamin A requirements, so why not focus on Vitamin D and potassium. I wonder though, if this would cause an increase in fortification for those nutrients? Probably not a wise way to go.

    Regardless of where you stand, the current food label is outdated. The percent daily values are based off of the RDAs from the 1960s. Portion sizes are completing meaningless without a standard. A serving size of 3/4 cup of cereal is ridiculous.

    I teach nutrition lessons to low-income families and many of my clients do look at the food label. They don’t always understand or look for the right things, but at least they are looking.

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  • Jim Fleming

    Where’s the GMO content on the new label? This is one of the biggest concerns that the general public has about food labeling. There’s supposed to be a 90 day comment period on the new changes. Where is that? Go to the FDA site and there is no such place to really leave comments. I tried but the response was “We’ll send you information about the new labeling.” They totally ignored my comments. One of the biggest arguments against GMO labeling is that it would cost food manufacturers money to do it. Now it could be done and wouldn’t cost a goddamn dime! Changes are being made anyway. Wouldn’t cost any extra to add GMO content.

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  • Michael Arlen

    It’s about time!