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- New nutrition labels require side-by-side calorie comparisons for servings and containers on food packages.
- Companies are also required to separate added sugars from natural sugars in their labels.
- Experts say the new labels can help people eat less and lose weight.
Are you trying to lose weight?
Experts say some new nutrition labels on packaged foods could make it easier.
The recent addition to food containers include side-by-side nutrition information, updated daily intake percentages, and added sugars listed separately from natural sugars.
Raw fruits, vegetables, and seafood are exempt from these
Also exempt are packaged food items that require additional ingredients, such as pancake mixes where you add eggs and water, or cereals that you pair with milk.
“It will be helpful for consumers to see numbers per container since so many individuals don’t do the multiplication when they eat an entire bag of chips or a whole pint of ice cream,” she told Healthline.
Experts agree that increased awareness about total food calories consumed per sitting is key for weight maintenance.
“The new display of both calories per serving and calories per container will help consumers better understand how many servings, and therefore calories, they are truly eating,” Caroline West Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, CLT, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Healthline.
“This increased awareness may help with portion control, but of course we will need studies to determine if this is an actual impact,” added Kirkpatrick.
In the meantime, Passerrello said the new food labels can help consumers make more informed choices from packaged foods.
This may help someone following the Mediterranean or DASH diet.
While many of the foods recommended by these diets don’t come with these food labels, said Passerrello, “the Mediterranean diet pattern and DASH diet each have many guidelines. One that occurs in both is the recommendation to avoid added sugars.”
“The new food labels will help consumers see which foods have natural versus added sugars,” Passerrello noted.
Kirkpatrick agreed that these labels can help one succeed with Mediterranean and DASH diets.
“Numbers are important, but the ingredient list is even more important,” she said.
Understanding calorie contents in packaged foods can help us practice better portion control, but it doesn’t help us decipher where our calories are coming from.
“Consumers have been provided guidance from [the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association] and other organizations on the limit of added sugars per day, yet most consumers have no idea how to calculate this,” said Kirkpatrick.
According to the American Heart Association, consumers should limit the amount of added sugars consumed to no more than half of one’s daily discretionary calorie allowance.
Try calculating that in the grocery aisle and you’ve reached the problem the FDA is working to solve.
“For example, if someone has a yogurt that has sugar added, there was, in the past, no way to determine how much sugar was occurring naturally from the dairy and how much was added,” said Kirkpatrick.
According to Passerrello, this label change could help with meeting daily nutritional needs.
“It is difficult to meet your nutrient needs while staying within calorie requirements if you consume more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugars,” she said. “On average, Americans get about 13 percent of their total calories from added sugars.”
Passerrello said the major sources of added sugar in our diet are:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, fruit drinks, coffees and teas, sports and energy drinks, and alcoholic beverages.
- Snacks and sweets, including grain-based desserts, dairy desserts, candies, sugars, jams, syrups, and sweet toppings.
Avoiding added sugars isn’t the same as avoiding all sugars.
“The key is that nutrient needs can still be met when naturally occurring sugars are consumed,” said Passerrello. “These foods have nutritive value, not just calories. Think of raisins versus grape soda.”
Kirkpatrick agreed that healthy eating requires consumers to look beyond calorie content alone.
“Where things can get confusing is in relation to maple syrup and honey,” Kirkpatrick said. “Since neither of these have any added sugars, the FDA decided they would not be listed in the added sugar category.”
But both maple syrup and honey lack a key component of other naturally occurring sugars.
“Though these options have added benefits, they don’t contain fiber, which makes them different from other foods with naturally occurring sugar,” said Kirkpatrick.
“For example, an apple, which naturally contains simple sugars, has fiber as well, which slows down the absorption of sugar and thereby the secretion of insulin as well as impact on blood sugar,” she said. “My point is, there are some areas where consumers may want to avoid the notion that there is no limit due to the fact that it’s not ‘added.’”
Emily Tam, a registered dietitian in Toronto who works with the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, told Healthline the label changes could have a negative impact on the eating disorder community.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, more than 30 million Americans live with an eating disorder.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
“The [label] changes suggest that the public should base their eating decisions on the calorie content of foods,” said Tam. “Not only is additional calorie information being displayed on some food packages, but the calorie information is now more prominent on all food packages due to the use of a bigger and bolder font.”
These changes, she said, could further distress and discourage people with eating disorders.
“Individuals with eating disorders, for whom the sight of calorie information may in itself be distressing, now have to contend with food labels that send the message to consumers that they should reconsider eating all of the food in a container in a sitting when that amount could in fact be healthy for their situation,” Tam said.
This can, in turn, cause problems for people caring for those with eating disorders.
“The impact of these new food labels might include additional stress for carers whose loved one is now more anxious about the calories in foods and subsequently experiencing more difficulty eating,” she said.
However, Tam says, it’s not like people with eating disorders aren’t already adept at calculating calories and percentages in their heads.
“In the absence of the second column displaying the calories per container, some would determine the number anyway, and be able to do so in a flash in their heads,” she said.
Adding the column doesn’t raise awareness about proper portion control in the case of disordered eating.
“On the other hand, foods containing more than a minute number of calories are scary enough for many people with eating disorders,” Tam said.
“When facing a food label that displays both the calories per serving and per container, a mind overtaken by an eating disorder is not likely going to allow the affected individual to eat all of the food in a container in a sitting,” she said.
“So, this dual-column label might be an impediment to eating adequately for some individuals,” Tam said.