The familiar Nutrition Facts labels that have long adorned packaged foods are getting a makeover—with a new focus on added sugars and other nutrients that can affect your heart health for better or worse.
The revamp, mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is the first in more than 20 years. And it’s based on a growing scientific understanding of how diet affects the risks of chronic health conditions like obesity and heart disease.
Most food manufacturers have until July 2018 to start rolling out the new labels. In the meantime, here are details about the changes and the research behind them.
The new labels will not look radically different from the ones you know. But one obvious change is the prominence of the calorie content: The number of calories per serving will be displayed in bigger, bolder type—making it harder to miss.
And the “serving size” on the label will be more in line with reality: A pint of ice cream, for example, will be labeled as having three servings, rather than four.
The idea is not to encourage you to eat more, but to provide a calorie count that reflects the amount of food that people typically eat, rather than what, ideally, they should eat.
The other major changes have to do with specific nutrients and their relationship to heart disease and other health concerns.
Added sugars revealed
For the first time, nutrition labels will divulge the amount of added sugars contained in each serving. The term refers to sweeteners that are not naturally present in a food, and includes table sugar, honey, syrups, and, in some cases, sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices.
The new labels will show the amount of added sugar in grams, as well as the “% Daily Value.” The latter is particularly important because it puts that serving of added sugar into the context of your overall diet.
The latest federal dietary guidelines advise that people get less than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugar. The new Nutrition Facts label should make it easier to stay within that target.
Why the emphasis on added sugars? It’s partly because sugar-laden foods are packed with calories, which can contribute to weight gain and obesity. And growing evidence is linking added sugars to the risk of heart disease.
One large study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014 found that U.S. adults who consumed the most added sugar (at least 25 percent of daily calories) were nearly three times more likely to die of heart disease or stroke, versus those with the lowest intakes (less than 10 percent of daily calories).
How sweet it isn’t
A high-sugar diet may contribute to heart disease for a number of reasons. For one, it can raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels, as well as triglycerides.
It may also encourage insulin resistance—a precursor to diabetes, which is a well-established risk factor for heart disease. Even in the absence of full-blown diabetes, insulin resistance has been tied to the risk of future heart problems and the severity of heart attacks.
Not all sugars are alike, though. Some research suggests there are particular hazards from consuming too much fructose—a form of sugar often added to processed foods and drinks such as soda. It may have greater effects on insulin, blood sugar, and LDL cholesterol, for instance, versus other forms of sugar.
A 2016 study in the American Heart Journal found a connection between adults’ intake of sugary sodas and the amount of calcium in their heart arteries—a strong predictor of future heart attack risk. People who drank at least five sugary sodas per week were 27 percent more likely to have detectable coronary artery calcium, versus those who avoided the beverages.
Know your nutrients
Another first: Manufacturers will now have to tell you how much potassium and vitamin D their products contain. That’s partly because many Americans do not consume enough of the nutrients, both of which have important health benefits.
Potassium helps lower blood pressure, while vitamin D is needed for strong bones. There is also growing evidence that adequate vitamin D may play a modest role in warding off heart disease. Information on vitamins A and C is no longer required, because few people are deficient in those nutrients.
The big picture
The new labels should make it easier to know exactly what you’re getting from processed and packaged foods. But the simplest way to avoid added sugars and get essential nutrients is to eat healthful “whole” foods.
Yet another study published in The New England Journal of Medicine illustrates how important that is. Following over 500,000 Chinese adults, researchers found that those who ate fresh fruit every day had lower blood pressure and blood sugar than those who never ate fruit. What’s more, they were one-third less likely to suffer a heart attack over four years.
So keep reading those nutrition labels, but remember that limiting processed foods is the higher and more important goal.
Are sugar substitutes a healthy addition to your diet? Read more about these sweeteners.
Amy Norton has been a medical journalist since 1999. She was a staff writer and editor for Physician’s Weekly and Reuters Health, and has written on health and medicine for MSNBC, The Scientist, Prevention and HealthDay. When she’s not writing, she is teaching yoga.