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Nutrition labeling changes are coming—do you know what you don't know?


For the first time since the law went into effect, there are changes to nutrition labeling, and they’re kind of a big deal. A little history.

In May of 1994 the NLEA provisions became mandatory and I was hired by a design firm to oversee the implementation of the new NLEA requirements on every single SKU at Kraft Foods. We are talking about hundreds, if not thousands, of packages. Prior to that there was very little nutrition information required on packages, and no real guidelines for nutritional claims like calling a food “Light” or “Reduced Fat”. For a year I attended weekly meetings at Kraft with the partner of our firm and the Kraft legal and marketing team. It wasn’t just putting the nutrition facts panel on packaging, there were new laws about making claims on packages regarding “Light” and “Reduced Fat” and everything had to fit, be the right size, and the package retain branding and shelf appeal. It was not a very glamorous project from a design perspective, but as a young designer I learned a lot about NLEA compliance and regulations and it’s stuck with me all these years. I hadn’t realized how much of an impact it made on me until I was recently asked to consult on a packaging project to make it compliant. Things like where information has to go and type size requirements are second nature to me, but not, as I realized, to most designers.

Fast forward 25 years (it seems like just yesterday) and here we are again. Other than a couple of minor changes over the years we haven’t had a major overhaul since the inception of the NLEA. We now have a pretty significant change, and it’s long overdue, in my opinion. If you are a larger food manufacturer you have a little over a year to become compliant (July 26, 2018) and if you are a small manufacturer you get an additional year to become compliant (July 26, 2019).

So what are the biggest changes?

A Serving of Reality

For starters, there are changes to serving sizes. Serving sizes are determined by the amount of a product people typically eat. Technically it’s called the Reference Amount Customarily Consumed, or RACC. A 20oz. soda has been considered two servings, but most people drink the whole thing at once. So, now it will also be considered one serving, as is a 12 oz. soda. A pint of ice cream is going from four servings to 3 servings (but let’s be honest, it’s really two servings for most people). This is a pretty big change, and one that, I think, will be beneficial to consumers.

Calories Count

The second big change is that the calories declaration just got a lot bigger and bolder. The change makes the calories stand out, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at the rest of the label to check all of the nutritional values in the food you are about to consume.​​

Sugar Spotlight

There is also a new addition—Added Sugars. It’s recommended that Americans eat less than 10% of calories from added sugars. Currently we consume 13-17% of our calories from added sugars. Don’t be confused by the new label. The Total Sugar number includes the Added Sugar number, so to determine the naturally occurring sugar in a serving just subtract the Added Sugar from the Total Sugar.

The Focus is off Fat

One thing that's going away is Calories from Fat. Views on fat in our diet have changed and we’ve gone from thinking we should avoid it to understanding that healthy fats are a good and necessary part of a healthy diet. Calories from Fat didn’t say anything about what type of fat was involved, so it’s being taken off.

Reality Bites

Probably the biggest problem for those of us who are package designers is going to be the new format for Per Serving/Per Container. On products that are larger than a single serving, but could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings, manufacturers will have to provide “dual column” labels to indicate the amount of calories and nutrients on both a “per serving” and “per package”/“per unit” basis. One example would be that pint of ice cream I mentioned earlier. The dual-column labels will allow people to easily see how many calories and nutrients they are getting if they eat or drink the entire package/unit at one time. This is a larger format Nutrition Facts panel than the current one and will undoubtedly create some space problems on some labels and packaging.

More information may be found at www.fda.gov

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