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When you scoop ice cream out of your pint of Ben & Jerry’s, are you taking a ½ cup serving, a.k.a. a baseball-sized amount? How about when you buy a 20 oz. bottle of soda at the bodega – are you drinking half, and bringing the rest home to finish tomorrow? No and no? That’s what I thought – and that’s how most people would answer those questions. Thankfully, the FDA has finally realized that some standard features of nutrition labels aren’t helping consumers make healthy choices. The good news: change is coming. Here’s what you need to know.

Serving Sizes: Let’s Get Real

As illustrated above, the serving sizes listed on many packaged foods and drinks are a touch absurd. Most people are not taking a mere ½ cup of ice cream, the standard listed serving size; they are likely eating at least twice that. Maybe they’ll take a cursory glance at the nutrition facts label, noting that a serving size is 250 or 300 calories. (Of course, they’re actually consuming about 500-600 calories thanks to the double serving.) Meanwhile, they won’t notice that  their little bottle of soda is really 2 or 2.5 servings. Luckily, adjustments to the serving sizes are now being proposed. Within the next two years, we can expect to see new nutrition facts labels that better reflect reality when it comes to portions.

Sugar: Well, Which Kind?

In addition to the serving size changes, expect to see a difference in the way the labels list sugar. Overall sugar will still be noted, in grams (it’s helpful to know that 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon), but now we will also get to see how much of that sugar is added sugar. Many foods contain sugar naturally, such as milk and fruits. The general consensus is that natural sugar is not something to worry about. It’s the added sugar in the American diet that has contributed so greatly to obesity and disease, so knowing exactly what type of sugar we’re consuming is immensely helpful.  

Let’s use yogurt as an example to illustrate what I mean here. Plain Greek nonfat yogurt, a food rightfully regarded as a healthy choice, contains about 7 grams of sugar per serving. If you look at the ingredients, you should see no sugar of any kind listed there.  This tells us that those 7 grams of sugar are found naturally in the milk used to make the yogurt—we don’t have to worry about this type of sugar.

But flavored Greek nonfat yogurt tends to contain about 16-19 grams of sugar per serving. With the current nutrition facts label, you would not know that 9-12 grams of that sugar is in addition to what’s naturally found in the yogurt unless you first looked at the plain yogurt’s ingredients list and then did some math. Furthermore, of that additional 9-12 grams in the flavored yogurt, how much of it is from the fruit that may have been added, and how much is white sugar (now often euphemistically called “evaporated cane juice” in ingredient lists)? There’s no way to know. But with the proposed new labels, we will now see exactly how much of that sugar is added sweetener. This is a big deal, and it’s really helpful.

Other New Features

What else is changing? The calorie counts will be much larger and easier to see. The percent daily values would show information both for a single serving and for the whole package, depending on the food. And vitamin D and potassium amounts would now need to be listed (but vitamins A and C would become optional).

What’s Still Missing

Ideally, the new labels would show us even more—why not include all the vitamins and minerals that appear in the food, for instance? Why not tell us the percent daily value for sugar? In the end, these labels involve a lot of compromise between the food industry and the government. It costs more money to test for each additional vitamin and mineral; as far as sugar is concerned, the sugar lobby has leaned on the government to ensure that no specific amount is recommended each day. The consumer suffers due to these issues, but at least this new label is an improvement over what we have now.

Food for Thought

In the end, it’s good to remember that the most important part of the label to read, both on the current and the new versions, is the ingredients list. Healthy eating is not just about percentages of vitamins and calorie counts; it’s about eating real foods with as few additives as possible. If an ingredient list is super long, or contains chemicals you wouldn’t cook with at home, consider choosing something else – preferably something with no ingredient list to speak of, like a carton of eggs, a bunch of fresh carrots, or a salmon steak. Then you’ll know that you’re making the healthiest possible choice.

Jennifer Schonborn is a certified holistic nutrition counselor. Sign up for a free consultation or her newsletter at jenniferschonborn.com.

Jennifer Schonborn is a holistic nutrition counselor certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. She received her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, which is the only nutrition school integrating all the different dietary theories—combining the knowledge of traditional philosophies with modern concepts like the USDA food pyramid, the glycemic index, the Zone, and raw foods. In addition to counseling, Jennifer has done a bi-weekly nutrition column, called "Safe or Scary?," for AOL's ParentDish blog, and written about nutrition for Glamour.com and Examiner.com. She received her BA from Wesleyan University and in a past life was an editor and writer for MTV and ELLE.com. read more about