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  • Writer's pictureSusie Csorsz Brown

Fact versus Fiction: Nutrition label lingo

Nutrition labels are supposed to make life easier for you, help you to understand what is in the food you are opting to eat, and make better food decisions for yourself and for your family. That’s all good and well, but fact of the matter is, those labels are confusing and the foods they sit on are not always what they seem, and neither is the information as straightforward as they try to make it seem.

Fact: Nutrition labels are required to be on all food items sold in the U.S. Many other countries also include nutrition labels, and there is a good bit of uniformity on what info is included. So that is good. The problem lies in what info is included, how it is included and what is NOT included. I mean, honestly, they can’t tell you every little nutrition-related nugget there is to know about the food; that would be ridiculous. There is a lot of gray area between ‘giving an honest picture’ and ‘manipulating the truth to sell more food’, and that is where a lot of food labels land.

Fact: While the manufacturers of the foods that need the most information shared (read: those that are highly processed) may appear to be trying to do you a favor by listing all of the nutrition info, they are also trying to confuse you into buying the item regardless of what is in the food or printed on that label. Remember: at the end of the day, they just want to sell more products. YOU are the one looking out for your and your family’s nutrition, not the manufacturers.

Fact: The information provided is deliberately contrary and mysterious. Why do I say this? Because the manufacturers of that food want you to buy the food; they are not trying to inform you but rather convince you that you WANT this food item, regardless of whether or not you should eat the food, or if it is bad for you.

Fact: It bears repeating: the manufacturer of that food product wants you to buy that item. In order to accomplish that goal, the manufacturer can potentially stretch or manipulate the truth put on a nutrition label or on the front of the box in order to convince you that you do, in fact, want to hand over some cash for that item. They can’t outright lie, but, for example, if one version of their corn flakes has less sugar than the second version, they are allowed to say ‘Now with less sugar’, even though the amount included may still be well over the suggested amount. They are also allowed to say things like ‘No cholesterol’ on a product made from vegetables (like vegetable oil) which should not have any cholesterol in it in the first place, as cholesterol is found in animal products only. They can give a lot of great sounding claims, and honestly, they don’t need to back them up very well because the rules that govern what can and cannot be claimed on a food label are pretty darn murky.

I will admit, the newest version of the food label is easier to read than previous iterations. It contains about as much information as most of us would really need when choosing foods. For example, if you are watching your weight or concerned about pre-diabetes, then it’s much easier to look at calories and added sugars. Or maybe you’ve been told to watch your fat and sodium intake because you have high blood pressure; in that case, you may read the label to quickly know how many calories, grams of fat or sodium is in a food. Still, manufacturers are not looking to keep you informed so much as to looking to sell their product, so make sure you fully understand what the label is telling you … and what it isn’t.

I’m going to go through the different parts of the nutrition label, and not only tell you the info you will find in this section, but also highlight some ways that the manufacturer might be trying to trick you into thinking the food is healthier than it actually is.

Here is the nutrition label example I’ll be referring to in the following sections. I’ll explain each portion of the label, why it is important and how the info applies to you and yours.

Serving size: The very top portion of the label highlights to serving size, as well as the number of servings per container. This is important so you can understand how many people you should be sharing that container with. All of the information provided on that label are for one serving. Now ask yourself, just how big is that serving? At our house, a box of macaroni and cheese is usually for one boy; however, according to the label, it should be shared amongst 2 or more people. When you are growing teenaged boy, your metabolism will likely allow this sort of indulgence. If you are a 45 year old man, perhaps this is not the wisest of food choices. This label claims the serving size is 2/3 of a cup. That’s a good sized portion … unless it is something that takes up a lot of space like cheesy poofs or potato chips. Then, are you really only going to eat 2/3 cup? Manufacturers can manipulate the numbers on the label, for example, by reducing the serving size and thereby reducing the amount of calories per serving. It’s good to have an idea of what 2/3 cup looks like, so you can better understand how much food the information on the label is referring to.

Calories per serving: The next big number is the amount of calories per serving. Given that an average intake for a woman is around 2,000 calories/day and for a man around 2,500 calories/day, this should give you an idea of how much of your daily intake you will ‘spend’ on this food. See above for how manufacturers might manipulate the number of calories per serving. This number is also important to note in relation to the grams of carbohydrates and fat. On the label, it says 230 calories per serving. That’s not a huge amount of calories, and I don’t know what food this is, but you might give yourself a better option with more fiber and protein by opting for ½ cup of hummus with carrots sticks, a tortilla smeared with a bit of mustard and 2 slices of ham and a small bit of shredded cheese, or 2-egg omelet with a small handful of cheese. All of those options have a lot less sugar, and a healthier fat profile as well as more protein. Not only will you stay full longer, you will also have more energy because those options don’t have as many simple sugars and instead offer slower-release sources of energy.

The next portion of the label includes the percentage of your Daily Values (if you were to eat 2,000 calories per day) the listed macro nutrients and sodium contribute to your daily intake. There are two sections; Note that top include nutrients that you may want to eat less of. For all nutrients that you want to limit (e.g., total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium), choose foods often that contain 5% DV or less of these nutrients. On the other hand, select foods with 20% DV or more of nutrients that you want to consume in larger amounts (e.g., fiber and calcium, and maybe some of the other vitamins or mineral listed).

The amounts listed are in a percentage in addition to the grams of each nutrient. The percentage in the top Daily Values section gives a percentage that nutrient contributes to your daily intake. The food in question provides the listed percentage of each of the nutrients listed. Let’s break it down.

First, the total fat in each serving, broken down into grams of total, saturated and trans fats. Not that long ago, there was a court ruling that stated that food manufacturers were required to minimize the amount of trans fats used in processed foods. Consuming this type of fats is typically strongly associated with heart disease. It is in your heart’s best interest to minimize how much trans fat you and your family eat, so this is a good number to know. Less is better. If you want to do a bit of math, you can multiply the number of grams of fat x 9 and you’ll get the number of calories in each serving provided by the fat in that food (so in this food, 8g x 9 = 72 calories; this food has 31% of its calories coming from fat. This is not an unusually high amount, however, it is higher than what you might like for foods you eat regularly). In an average healthy diet, up to as much as 30% of your intake calories can come from fat. Generally, you should try to limit your intake of saturated fat to less than 10% of your daily intake.

Cholesterol: It is important to remember that not all cholesterols are dangerous. In fact, the body produces certain amounts of cholesterol each day to support overall functioning. Dietary cholesterol is also consumed through animal products, such as dairy products, meat, fish and egg yolks. Foods derived entirely from plants, such as vegetables, fruits, and grains, contribute insignificant, if any, amounts of cholesterol. Blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol are not the same thing. In general, if you consume a lot of animal products, chances are that you are consuming cholesterols; unless you have a specific health problem and have been told to reduce your intake of cholesterol, there is no longer a specific recommended limit for dietary cholesterol, but in general, healthy people should be trying to consume as little as possible. The label above shows that there is 0mg of cholesterol contributed by one serving of that food item.

Take home message about fats and cholesterol: you should try to limit your intake of unhealthy fats and cholesterol as much as possible. This is of higher concern for people who are concerned with obesity, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. Your fat intake should be the smallest portion of your intake, as compared to carbohydrates and proteins. The limitations you should put on eating fat are determined by your health profile.

Sodium: Remember what I said: the top portion of the DV section are the nutrients you want to limit. Most processed foods have higher-than-what-you’d-like levels of sodium. Why? To enhance flavor and to act as a preservative. Many manufacturers use more than one kind of product to contribute towards both of those end-goals. On the label you might see sodium, sure, but also monosodium glutamate, sodium acetate, and even baking soda or baking powder. In general, you should try to limit your sodium intake to about 2,300mg per day. A good general rule of thumb is to limit foods that have more than 140 mg/serving, if possible. Kids, especially teens, tend to have the highest sodium intake of all of us (as high as 4,220 mg/day). The source of all of that sodium: processed foods, and fast foods. What’s the point of worrying about sodium in your diet? Well, the greatest worry is the link between sodium intake and high blood pressure. Take the label above: it lists 160 mg per serving. Probably not a good choice to consume regularly.

Total Carbohydrates - Fiber and Sugar:If you want to do a bit of math, you can multiply the number of grams of carbohydrates x 4 and you’ll get the number of calories in each serving provided by the carbohydrates in that food (so in this food it would be 37g x 4 = 148 calories; more than half of the calories of this food come from carbohydrates, and 40 of those come from simple sugars). The carbohydrates are now listed on the label in two categories: fiber and sugars. Let’s break it down:

First is fiber. While fiber is good, note that often manufacturers of processed foods will add fiber to their food product – potentially naturally derived or not – because they want to food to appear ‘healthier’. The best way to know if this is the case in your food, you should read the ingredient list and look for things like cellulose, psyllium, beta-glucan soluble fiber or inulin. There are, of course, other names. These added fibers have varying degrees of healthfulness as your body may or may not absorb them. Fiber intake is important if you are trying to lose weight (increased fiber helps you to feel full longer as it slows the process of digestion), if you have high blood cholesterol or high blood pressure levels (fiber again contributes by slowing absorption of fat and cholesterols as well as binding some of those fats so they pass through your GI without being absorbed at all), if you have diabetes (fiber contributes to maintaining a steadier blood sugar level in the same way it contributes to high blood cholesterol, by slowing the absorption of sugars into the blood stream), and if you regularly struggle with constipation or other GI issues (fiber helps you poop!).

Total sugars: The amount of total sugars includes those naturally present in foods, such as sugar in milk or fruits as well as any added sugars. In general, the concern is more about the amount added sugars, as these are not naturally occurring in the food you are about to eat. If you look at the label above, 10g of the 12g total sugar come from added sugar. That’s a large percent of added sugar.

Added sugars: These are the sugars that are added during the processing of the food you are about to eat. These are now detailed because Americans like to worry, and one of our current worries is the amount of calories we consume from added sugars. The amount of added sugars varies depending on where you look, but in general, no more than 50 grams of your daily intake should come from added sugars.

A note on sugars in your food: first, sugar is an important part of a food because it contributes to taste, to mouthfeel and to moisture content. Sugar also helps to keep foods fresh longer. Food manufacturers like sugar; in fact, they will include it in your food in a myriad of forms beyond ‘sugar.’ It important to be familiar with all of these names sugar might carry and check the ingredient list to make sure you are not consuming more than you might think. Some of sugar’s other names include fructose, lactose, sucrose, demerara, corn syrup, malt, maltodextrin, agave, molasses, rice syrup … the list goes on and on. If this is of concern for you, please be sure to educate yourself on these names so you can limit the sugar you’re eating.

Protein: In healthy diet, 12 to 20% of your daily intake should com from protein. If you want to do a bit of math, you can multiply the number of grams of protein x 4 and you’ll get the number of calories in each serving provided by the carbohydrates in that food (so in this food, it would be 3g x 4 = 12 calories; this food is not an especially good source of protein). Protein is having its darling moment right now, with a number of fad diets focusing on the consumption of more and more protein. To be fair, consuming higher amounts of protein can help keep you feeling full longer (the body does not break down protein in food as efficiently nor as quickly as it does carbohydrate or fats), but protein also doesn’t offer as many vitamins and minerals as might carbohydrates, so it is important to include all nutrients to the degree that they benefit your health as possible. Note that manufacturers can manipulate the amount of protein in a food by adding things like pea protein, which ups the numbers. In general. Animal protein is easier to absorb and digest than pea protein; however, pea protein is high in iron and a complete protein, and it is naturally vegan so that is probably appealing to some.

Vitamins and other Nutrients: The bottom portion of the Daily Values section lists nutrients that have been identified as those in which U.S. consumers tend to fall short. This is the section that you might want to focus on if you have been told you are needing a particular nutrient, like potassium or iron, or are worried that perhaps you are not meeting all of your vitamin needs. Something to remember: as I said above, a food that provides, say, 5% of a nutrient is low in that nutrient. A better source would be a food that provides 20% or more. Looking at the label above, we see that it is not an especially good source of Vitamin D or Potassium, but pretty darn good for iron and calcium.

Final fact: those foods with the shortest of nutrition labels are most often the most healthful. Manufacturers of highly processed foods will argue, saying that even apples or olive oil, technically, are a processed food. And they are. However, there are significant differences between, say, salmon you buy from the freezer section, and tub of ready-to-serve salmon mousse. Whole foods don’t need ingredient lists; shorter is definitely better!

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