Here is how to read Nutrition Facts Labels.1 Here is why you are confused.2 You are not alone.

We all do our best to connect directly with our food source, supporting growers directly at the farmers markets and possibly growing our own food at home; sprouts under the kitchen sink, fermenting, potted culinary herbs and sometimes full blown vegetable gardens. Many of us, however, face days or years of our lives where we lean into the convenience of prepared foods and come face to face with the nutrition facts labels. “With over 61% of US adults reporting that they use the Nutrition Facts Panel, these labels have great visibility and potential to be important tools for public education and policy.” (Malik, Willet, Hu; 2016) The trouble is, across the globe, folks just do not understand what the information means and heterogeneity (portion variance between similar products) on labeling creates consumer confusion.4 If you are frustrated, you are not alone.

Positive Impact: With the inclusion of trans fats on prior iterations of the label, this held manufacturers accountable for reducing these harmful ingredients and influenced them to reduce trans fats overall; success! The same is hoped for recent changes which now require identifying added sugars.3

Room for Debate: The regulations surrounding nutrition fact labels, are in concert with the Dietary Guidelines that are released every 5 years. Recent updates to dietary guidelines ignored evidence linking alcohol intake with higher risk for developing cancer.5 This is not the only exclusion. The current iteration has also changed the serving size referenced on the nutrition facts label to reflect the larger portion generally consumed or to match the size of the container, i.e. a larger portion size than has been consumed in decades past.6 

I am concerned about the portions. On the one hand, sharing accurate information about the full portion that is sold as a container to be consumed, often in one sitting, has tremendous value in warning folks that the 20 oz soda as a serving contains significantly more than the daily needs recommend, aka multiple servings in one package.3 On the flip side, this normalizes this larger serving size as a “standard portion” and invites the consumer to disregard the daily serving recommendations. This has been proven in three studies to result in larger self-selected portion sizes.4

Moreso, the portion variance from package to package, makes it increasingly difficult for consumers to compare products.4

If I were in a regulatory position, I would mandate sale of smaller sizes, uniformity in serving size for product comparison, and compulsory dual-column to include both standardized serving size and full package content nutrition facts side by side. This is currently elective and in practice by some manufacturers.4

I’m with Bloomburg, if we could outlaw Big Gulps7 and mandate smaller packaging, this  seems the most effective approach to “show” consumers what a real serving size is. As I say this, the environmentalist in me squirms at the thought of extra packaging. The effort over time, would discourage overconsumption of high sugar content drinks and prevent industry manipulation of increased portion size by large companies capitalizing on food addiction, in direct opposition to consumer health. 

Video sourced from fda.gov

Awareness is key. Check out the FDA’s article on How To Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label1, and the CDC to Learn How the NEW Nutrition Facts Label Can Help You Improve Your Health8. “The consumption of ultraprocessed foods associated with the increase in portion size has been linked to diets of low nutritional quality and an increased risk of developing obesity and cancer.” (Kliemann N, Kraemer MVS, Scapin T, et al; 2018)

Still confused? Schedule your next trip to the grocery with me! Let’s crunch some numbers in the aisles and set you up for success with your health goals one bite at a time.

Image sourced from fda.gov
  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. How To Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. fda.gov. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label. Accessed April 8, 2021.
  2. Goyal R, Deshmukh N. Food label reading: Read before you eat. J Educ Health Promot. 2018;7:56. Published 2018 Apr 3. doi:10.4103/jehp.jehp_35_17 
  3. Malik VS, Willett WC, Hu FB. The Revised Nutrition Facts Label: A Step Forward and More Room for Improvement. JAMA. 2016;316(6):583-584. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.8005 
  4. Van der Horst K, Bucher T, Duncanson K, Murawski B, Labbe D. Consumer Understanding, Perception and Interpretation of Serving Size Information on Food Labels: A Scoping Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(9):2189. Published 2019 Sep 11. doi:10.3390/nu11092189 
  5. American Institute for Cancer Research. New Dietary Guidelines for Americans Ignore Critical Evidence on Alcohol and Cancer. aicr.org. https://www.aicr.org/news/new-dietary-guidelines-for-americans-ignore-critical-evidence-on-alcohol-and-cancer/. December 29, 2020. Accessed April 10, 2021.
  6. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols; Wartella EA, Lichtenstein AH, Boon CS, editors. Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Phase I Report. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2010. 2, History of Nutrition Labeling. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209859/ 
  7. Bittman, Mark. Banning the Big Gulp Ban. New York Times. March 19, 2013. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/19/banning-the-big-gulp-ban/. Accessed April 8, 2021. 
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Learn How the NEW Nutrition Facts Label Can Help You Improve Your Health. cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/strategies-guidelines/nutrition-facts-label.html. Reviewed Feb 10, 2020. Accessed April 8, 2021. 
  9. Kliemann N, Kraemer MVS, Scapin T, et al. Serving Size and Nutrition Labelling: Implications for Nutrition Information and Nutrition Claims on Packaged Foods. Nutrients. 2018;10(7):891. Published 2018 Jul 12. doi:10.3390/nu10070891