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Diet & Nutrition

The FDA and Healthy Food Choices

An update from the federal Food and Drug Administrations on the food information you have before making your choices.

As you’re sitting around your kitchen table or walking into your favorite chain restaurant, or in the grocery store, you may wonder:

What should I feed myself and my family at home?

What about when we’re eating out?

Which of the many food options available would be a healthy choice, no matter where we’re eating?

To help you make healthy choices, FDA’s recent efforts will do two things: First, provide the information you need to make those choices.

Second, encourage and help food companies to reformulate, or change the recipes of products to produce healthier foods.

The New, Improved Nutrition Facts Label

For more than 20 years, the familiar Nutrition Facts label on packages at the grocery store has guided many consumers in making food choices for their families. To make the label even more useful, FDA has made changes in both format and content. Updated Nutrition Facts labels may be displayed on packages now but must be on packages by July 26, 2018 (or July 26, 2019 for manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales).

These changes include:

Highlighting information on calories and servings—two important elements in making informed food choices.

Listing additional nutrients. For the first time, “Added Sugars” must be on the label—both in grams and as a % Daily Value. (The % Daily Value tells you how much of the reference daily amount of a nutrient is in a single serving.) Scientific data shows that it is difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugars, and this is consistent with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. On average, Americans consume 13 percent of their daily calories from added sugars—making it much harder to stay within individual calorie limits.

In addition to “Added Sugars,” Vitamin D and potassium also are now required to be listed on the label.

Serving sizes that more closely reflect the amounts of food people actually eat, so the nutrition information that is listed per serving will be more realistic. In addition, the number of servings and serving sizes are more prominent.

“Some of the changes, such as providing calories and servings in larger and bolder type, will help people see this important information more quickly,” says health scientist Claudine Kavanaugh, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D. “Other changes, such as requiring that ‘added sugars’ be declared and that potassium and vitamin D be labeled, reflect changes in nutrition recommendations.”

Changes to what’s required on the label can also spur companies to adjust their recipes. For example, this happened in 2006, when FDA required that trans fat be declared on the Nutrition Facts label. Trans fat in foods declined dramatically, and companies are already announcing their plans to reduce added sugars in their products.

Menu Labeling: Calorie Counts No Longer a Mystery

More than one-third of the calories Americans eat and drink come from food and beverages consumed away from home, so consumers need nutrition information when they eat out. Calorie counts will now appear on menus and menu boards of establishments covered by the menu labeling rule, including chain restaurants, take-out and delivery food places, salad and hot-food bars, and even some movie theaters that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations. You may have noticed some places posting these calorie counts already, but all restaurants covered by the rule must post calorie counts in accordance with the rule by May 5, 2017.

Among the info you’ll see:

Calories from alcohol are often overlooked, so the counts for certain alcoholic beverages in food establishments covered by the rule will also be listed on the menu.

To help consumers put the calorie information in the context of their total daily diet, the rule calls for the following reminder to be included on menus and menu boards: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.” This will be in sync with a similar footnote on the new Nutrition Facts label.  Certain vending machines, too, will post calorie counts for the foods they sell.

Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says, “Consumers are used to seeing calorie counts on the Nutrition Facts label for foods on supermarket shelves. Now, with menu labeling, they will have calorie information and access to other nutrient information when they eat away from home, as well.”

“When you know that lunch at a fast food chain can add up to a day’s worth of calories, it really puts it all in perspective,” she adds.

And other nutrition information, though not posted, will be available on request. Examples include information on sodium, saturated fat, fiber, and protein.

Sodium: Developing Targets for Industry to Reduce Salt

And what about sodium? Americans currently consume on average 3,400 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium—almost 50 percent more than is recommended. Most of that comes from processed and prepared food.

Sodium already is listed on the Nutrition Facts label, but even if you read labels and choose carefully, it’s a challenge to limit intake to the recommended 2,300 mg per day. And restaurant foods also tend to be high in sodium.

Many in the food industry have taken steps to reduce the amount of sodium in their foods, but sodium levels still remain too high. So FDA has proposed voluntary short-term (two-year) and long-term (10-year) targets for reducing sodium in processed and prepared food.

In developing these targets, FDA found that sodium levels often vary greatly within food categories, providing evidence that reductions are possible. The agency is engaging food companies on the draft targets and will encourage companies to implement the finalized targets. This should help gradually reduce sodium in the food supply so that consumers who wish to reduce their sodium consumption can have increased food choices.

Getting the Information You Need

“These initiatives all work together to address the American diet across the food landscape, including packaged and restaurant and retail foods,” says Mayne. “Whether it’s added sugar or sodium or any other ingredient, it’s about knowing what’s in your food and making informed choices.”

“At FDA, we’re consumers too. And as consumers, we want what you do for ourselves and our families—the best information about what we’re eating along with the knowledge that the FDA is working to ensure that we all have healthy choices,” Mayne says.

This article appears on the FDA’s Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.