When the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first introduced food labels in 1993, it was a revolutionary concept. By requiring manufacturers to provide certain dietary facts and list ingredients in a standard manner, nutritional information became accessible to everyone.

But the FDA has decided that after more than 20 years, it’s time to update food labels. The agency is expected to release its final recommendations for these updates by the end of 2014.

Major proposed changes include making information about calorie counts and the number of servings per container more prominent, as well indicating the presence of added sugars as well as nutrients like vitamin D and potassium.

Serving Size Adjustments

One of the proposed changes is the serving size. Mary Poos, PhD, deputy director of the FDA’s Office of Nutrition and Labeling and Dietary Supplements discussed the issue on the FDA’s consumer update page: "We know now that package size affects what people eat," Poos said on the website. "More food products previously labeled as more than one serving would now be required to be labeled as just one serving because people are more likely to eat or drink them in one sitting. Examples include a 20-ounce can of soda and a 15-ounce can of soup."

According to the FDA, the proposed label would change "Amount Per Serving" to "Amount Per Serving Size." This would more realistically reflect eating habits and make calorie counts clearer to consumers. Here’s how it works: A serving of ice cream is currently half a cup, regardless of the size of the container it comes in. But since most consumers typically eat more than a half cup of ice cream in a sitting, the proposed label might read "Amount per cup."

Nutritional Updates

Another proposed change will incorporate current research about specific nutrients. Because certain Americans tend to be lacking in vitamin D and potassium, the FDA has determined that information about the amounts of these nutrients in foods should be added to nutritional labels. (Vitamin D strengthens bones, while potassium has a beneficial affect on blood pressure.) Meanwhile, because vitamins A and C are not lacking in the typical American diet, data about these nutrients won’t be required.

Too Much Sugar

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the redesign is the attention paid to sugar. The FDA wants to add a new category to the label: Added Sugars.

Added sugars are simple carbohydrates that don’t naturally occur in foods. The FDA notes that the average American gets 16 percent of her total calories from added sugars found in soda, energy and sports drinks, grain-based and dairy-based desserts, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, and candy.

"While there is no such thing as ‘healthy’ sugar, there is a difference between sugar that exists naturally in milk [lactose] versus sugar that is added to processed foods like soda," says Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That’s because natural sugars like lactose in milk and fructose in fruit enter the body along with other nutrients that help slow your absorption of it, while added sugars are empty calories that don’t provide the body with any nutrition.

Not only are added sugars unlikely to improve your health, they can also be hard to identify—they don’t just include well-known sweeteners like white sugar (including the raw, confectioners, and granulated varieties), brown sugars, honey, molasses, and maple sugar and syrup. Added sugars also include high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, sucrose, and anhydrous dextrose. So the addition of information about added sugars could help consumers identify foods to limit or avoid.

To minimize sugar consumption, Lemond suggests eating food in its natural state whenever possible. When you do eat processed food, look for foods containing less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.

Once the FDA has made final label recommendations, manufacturers will have two years to comply with the law. In the meantime, Lemond suggests taking the time to read the current label and be mindful of your portion sizes.

For a chart detailing the food label makeover, visit the FDA's site

Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD, reviewed this article.


Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, board certified pediatric nutrition specialist, wellness speaker and co-owner, Lemond Nutrition. Phone interview 18 August 2014.

"Proposed Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label." US Food and Drug Administration. Updated 1 August 2014. 

"Consumer Updates: Food Serving Sizes." US Food and Drug Administration. Posted 27 February 2014. 

"Calories: How Many Can I Have?" US Food and Drug Administration. Page accessed September 23, 2014.