Food labels ready for healthy makevoer

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at

Read any good food labels lately? They’re supposed to help you choose foods and beverages, but sometimes they can be confusing, overwhelming or even a bit misleading. Don’t worry you’re not the only one who thinks they need a makeover. After twenty years, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration is making a move to improve the Nutrition Facts Panel located on the back or side of packaged foods. The panel currently lists all of the important specs such as calories, fat, sodium, fiber, sugars and several key vitamins and minerals. Nutrition science has certainly changed over two decades, so FDA officials want food labels to keep pace with current health advice and be a better guide to help us eat better. (The US Department of Agriculture regulates the labeling of meats and poultry.)

Calories and Servings

With obesity rates climbing, there's more emphasis on total calories consumed today, so one expected change will be calorie counts printed in larger fonts and bolder type. And once you do see it, is that calorie amount for the whole package? Many want that information to be easier to digest as well. For example, if you grab a sports drink, the 70 calories per serving might be for half the bottle, not the whole thing you just guzzled down.

Another suggested change is adding a line that lists the amount of added sugars in a product. This is important, for instance, when looking at the grams of sugar in yogurt or other dairy products. Lactose, the sugar naturally occurring in milk, can comprise as much as twenty percent of the total sugars listed. So, an additional line for added sugars would reveal how much extra sugar manufacturers added to sweeten dairy products. The FDA has been working on new guidelines for a decade. A draft of suggested improvements has recently been sent to the White House.

Read it Before You Eat It

In the meantime here are some tips for deciphering today’s food labels to help you shop for healthier food products.

- See the Light? - Did you know the term ‘light’ can mean lighter in calories, fat or sodium and if used on olive oil ‘light’ can refer to the color of the oil?

- Nothing’s really free- “Calorie–free” foods can have up to 5 calories per serving. So read descriptive words with care.

- What you don't want - The nutrients to limit include fat, sodium and sugar. Avoid products with trans fats.

- What you do want – Most Americans don't consume enough fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron in their diets. So, look for foods that provide these nutrients.

- Pretty healthy? Package design is not the best guide to good nutrition. Don’t be influenced by art work of bucolic farm scenes or healthy sounding product names.

- Law’s on Your Side - Health claims such as ‘heart healthy’ that describe a relationship between a food and reduced risk of a disease are tightly regulated by the FDA.