Food Labels Get New Look, but Educators Still Have Work to Do on Health Literacy in Diets

Health literacy is in everything we do — from understanding the dosages on pill bottles to knowing how to follow our doctor’s instructions. But there’s another area of our lives where health literacy skills are essential to getting and staying healthy: The ability to understand the labels on the foods we eat every day.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing an update to the Nutrition Facts label found on most food packages in the United States. The label, introduced two decades ago, helps us make informed food choices so that we can eat healthy — or at least know when we’re choosing not to!

The proposed changes (left, from the FDA) include a new design, updated serving size and labeling requirements on certain package sizes, plus a greater emphasis on nutrition science.

From a health literacy perspective, I love the new changes that use bold, larger lettering to highlight how many servings there are per container, and how many calories there are per serving. These updates make the new labels simpler and easier to read. They also draw attention to arguably the two most important facts contained on food labels.

Though I applaud many of the changes, I remain concerned that many Americans will continue to struggle with food labels when it comes to numeracy, the ability to reason and to apply simple numerical concepts.

“Numbers are used to instruct, inform, and give meaning to information in order to help us make healthier choices in our everyday lives,” according to a recent paper by the Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Health Literacy, which found that research has demonstrated that not all people can understand and use numbers effectively. “In particular,” the report found, “people differ in numeracy.” Simply put, the updated label still requires significant math to calculate daily values of important nutrients.

While proposed changes requiring serving sizes consumed in one setting to be labeled as such are helpful, consumers also will need education on what the data on the food label really means, particularly the % DV (percentage of daily value). In the same respect, the new ‘additional sugars’ information is important from a health perspective, but most people in the general public don’t have enough information about the difference between ‘sugars’ and ‘added sugars’ to use the information in a meaningful way.

I encourage everyone to learn more about the proposed food label and brainstorm ways that health education professionals can educate the public on how to understand and use dietary information on food labels.

Here’s the FDA information about the new food label. Check it out and think of some things we can do make these important changes effective and helpful to everyone.

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