Nutrition Facts Panel for Health Communications

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Nutrition labels or nutrition facts panels (NFP) communicate important information about the food consumers eat. Information such as calorie count, amounts of sugar and fat, vitamin and mineral values, and ingredient contents help us understand the nutritional value of food products and how an item fits into our diet. The ability to make an informed decision about the food we eat is essential for health and nutrition.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently required changes to be made to the NFP to increase clarity for consumers and to reflect updated nutrition science. These updates, which must be implemented by January 2020 as discussed further in this article, include making the calorie count more prominent by increasing the type size, differentiating between “serving size” and “servings per container,” and bolding the calories and serving size content. Vitamins A and C will no longer be listed, as most Americans are rarely deficient in these vitamins. Vitamin D and potassium will be added to NFPs because many Americans do not get enough of these nutrients. “Calories from fat” will be removed, as research now shows that the nutritional value of fat depends on the type of fat.

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The American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine, and the World Health Organization all recommend reducing intake of added sugars (FDA, 2018a). In response to these findings, the new NFPs will list “added sugars” as a subcategory of “total sugars.” This will help articulate the difference between naturally occurring sugars and sugars added during manufacturing. While these changes do not guarantee that consumers will make healthier choices, it does empower the public to make better informed decisions about their personal nutrition by increasing clarity and transparency.

Why are these new NFP regulations so important to health communicators?

As health communicators, it is our duty to provide evidence-based, yet clear and easily understandable, health information to the public. Nutrition information can be especially scientific and complex. Using plain language on NFP labels ensures that technical terms are simplified and that the most important points are emphasized. By using plain language as a strategy in NFP regulations, health communicators can promote more equitable health outcomes. The NFP improvements set forth by the FDA seek to improve efforts in communicating important nutrition information—particularly among individuals with lower literacy levels.

The FDA extended the compliance date from July 2018 to January 2020 for manufacturers with more than $10 million in annual food sales (FDA, 2018a). While some industry groups such as the American Frozen Food Institute welcome this extension, consumer advocacy groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest argue that the changes to nutritional labeling are urgent (Food Safety, 2017). Despite this delay, some manufacturers have already repackaged their products to comply with the new regulations. The next time you’re at the grocery store, make sure to take a look at the NFP to see if you notice any changes.

This spring, we urge you to learn more about the foods you’re eating. Here are some tips to help:

  • Some ingredients, especially sugar, can appear under many different names including carbitol, concentrated fruit juice, diglycerides, disaccharides, erythritol, maltodextrin, and sorbitol. A good rule of thumb is that anything ending with “-ose” is a form of sugar.
  • Why is dietary fiber important? Dietary fiber helps slow the release of sugar into your blood as you digest food. Use the NFP to look at the ratio of sugar and carbohydrates to dietary fiber. Having more fiber than sugar means you will have more sustained energy.
  • Look beyond health claims or buzz words such as “superfood,” “reduced,” and “natural” by reading the ingredients list.
  • Although the panel only lists “cholesterol,” there are two types—HDL and LDL. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a build-up of LDL cholesterol, which is linked to trans fats, can lead to heart attacks and strokes. A healthy ratio of LDL and HDL cholesterol helps your body build cells.
  • Even foods that don’t taste salty can have sodium. Sodium is necessary to help organs and fluids function, but products containing 20 percent or more of your daily value of sodium are considered high in sodium.

References
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Plain language materials & resources. 
Food and Drug Administration. (2018a). Changes to the nutrition facts label. 
Food and Drug Administration. (2018b). Using the nutrition facts label: A how-to guide for older adults.
Food Safety Staff. (2017). Proposed rule to extend nutrition facts label compliance dates. Food Safety Magazine. 
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services & U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2015). 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

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