Who eats half a packet of ramen noodles? Yet that’s the serving size listed on its nutrition label.
The eating habits of Americans, most notably portion sizes, have changed since the nutrition label debuted in 1993. The Food and Drug Administration is in the process of revamping it to better reflect modern packaging, ingredients and consumption.
We talked to Janice Maras, research manager of the Dietary Assessment Center at Northeastern University, about the main changes to the label and tips for eating smarter.
The calorie count is getting even more prominent. Maras reminds us that although the recommendation of 2,000 calories a day is an average – women should generally consume less and men more — it’s a useful guideline to keep track of how many calories each meal should contain. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks combined should ideally cap at 500 calories each.
“When people think of [calories] as individual amounts, it gets more confusing,” she says.
Realistic portions:Serving sizes
The biggest benefit of the new label, according to Maras, will be to reduce confusion by better reflecting how much people are actually eating in one sitting. (The current serving sizes were set according to food surveys done in the 1970s.) A pint of ice cream will be divided into two servings instead of four; a 20-ounce bottle of soda will be a single serving. A family-size bag of chips will have two labels — one per serving and one for the entire bag (so all of us distractedly eating in front of the TV can feel appropriately guilty).
“People need to see the truth,” she says. “They’re not going to really relate to a serving if that’s not what they’re eating.”
Changing needs:New nutrients
Vitamins A and C, which Americans are no longer deficient in, are being dropped from the label to make room for two new nutrients. Hypertension rates highlighted the importance of potassium, which boosts cardiovascular function. And contrary to popular belief, you cannot get enough vitamin D from spending 15 minutes a day in the sun. This deficiency, especially among obese people, is a concern given vitamin D’s immune system benefits.
But don’t be fooled by good ingredients added to items such as yogurt-covered raisins. “You still have to eat a fruit. Don’t eat candy and think it’s a fruit,” Maras says.
New to the label:Added sugars
For the first time, labels will differentiate between naturally occurring and added sugars. And if you’re drinking even one soda a day, you’ve likely hit the recommended eight-teaspoon limit for added sugars. “When you eat an apple, you get the fiber and you get the complex carbohydrates. It’s digested slowly and it’s good for you,” Maras says. “When you take that fructose out and put it in a liquid form, it becomes different.” Your blood sugar spikes without the other ingredients to moderate digestion, she explains.
Maras also wants the FDA to go further by creating a Daily Value for sugar to put it into the context of a healthy diet.
How we got super-sized
Serving sizes began to change in the 1970s with a radical shift in how Americans eat, Maras says. “We went from eating in the home to eating outside, and we want to get more for our money,” she explains. “Even the good stuff we’re eating, we’re eating too much of, because we’re eating out so much.”
Case in point: American cabinets used to include fruit juice glasses. These 6-ounce cups had a single purpose: They held the one serving of juice that families drank per day. But fruit juices — with their sugar and calories — are now part of more meals and snacks.