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The FDA just made the most significant changes to the nutrition label in years

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Trying to understand how healthy your food is by reading the nutrition labels on packaging is like trying to complete an advanced math equation: It's possible, but requires a lot of effort.

Now, deciphering the labels will finally get easier. The US Food and Drug Administration just announced their final ruling on a long-anticipated overhaul of calorie labels on packaged foods.

The new Nutrition Facts labels will appear on millions of food packages within two years, finally telling you more about what you really need to know about your food for health — especially how much sugar has been added.

Most food companies will be required use this new nutrition label in 2018.

There are five key changes to look out for:

  • The calories in a serving and the serving size will be presented in bigger and bolder text.
  • The amount of added sugars per serving will also be reported for the first time. Labels will also show how much that accounts for the daily value of sugar a person should be eating, as they have for carbohydrates, fats, and sodium for years.
  • Serving sizes will better reflect the amount of food people eat instead of telling you how much energy you get out of half a granola bar or three-fourths of a cup of yogurt.
  • Vitamin D, iron, calcium, and potassium will now be added to labels (because Americans aren't consuming enough) but reporting the values of vitamins A and C will no longer be required (these deficiencies are now rare).
  • Instead of showing "calories from fat," the label will now include "total fat" and sub-types like "saturated fat" and "trans fat."  This reflects the research that certain types of fat are more harmful to health than others.

The most controversial news about the new calorie labels has to do with sugar

michelle obama AP

First Lady Michelle Obama on May 18 announcing the new nutrition labels in Washington DC.

That biggest news is the sugar update. Until now, there's been no way to tell how much added sugar lurks in your food. On the current calorie label (below), food companies only report "sugars" — which obscured the amount of sweeteners like sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, malt sugar, molasses, and others that food companies pump into their products to make them tastier.

For example, in chocolate milk and canned peaches, it was impossible to know how much sugar was naturally occurring (and generally healthy) and how much was added in to boost the taste.

The current calorie label.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) the average American is now consuming 23 teaspoons of added sugar each day. These sweeteners are hidden in everything from the tea you drink to the yogurt you eat and the peanut butter you buy.

Too much added sugar in the diet is associated with increased risk of tooth decay, weight gain, heart disease, and poor nutrition. That's why the latest US Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugars make up no more than 10 percent of a person's daily calories.

The reason it's taken so long to give Americans this information: fierce lobbying from the food industry since the new label design was first proposed in 2014 after a years-long push by the Obama administration. "The Sugar Association and Grocery Manufacturers Association have opposed the added sugars line," said Michael F. Jacobson, the president of CSPI, which has also advocated for added sugar reporting on labels since 1999.

For now, however, the sugar lobby lost.

"Having the added sugars will shock people into realizing how much sugar they're eating," Jacobson said. It's also expected to encourage companies to reformulate products to make them healthier.

The new label is a "huge win," added Marion Nestle, a food politics expert at New York University. "While Congress is nitpicking school food and child feeding programs, we will at least have added sugars on food labels. In today’s hideous political climate, this is cause for celebration."

But the labels aren't perfect…

In a perfect world, the food label would be communicated in an even clearer manner. For example, the CSPI asked that the FDA show the amount of added sugar in foods in terms of teaspoons as well as grams.

"People understand teaspoons so much more intuitively than grams," Jacobson said. But that's not happening for the same reason it took so long to reveal how much sugar is added to food: food industry pushback.

The Sugar Association, which represents most sugar producers, has already suggested it could sue the FDA about the new label.

Jacobson expects a lawsuit won't go very far since courts typically give deference to federal agencies.

But there's still time for political and legal wrangling. Most food companies won't be required to use the new label until July 26, 2018. Companies with less than $10 million in annual food sales will have an additional year to comply.

Watch: Mark Bittman explains what's wrong with food in America

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