Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why and how to read a food label

42% of total calories from fat
— cookie, anyone?
image: Diet Motion
What's in that cookie?

Or your low-fat yogurt, or that package of high-fiber crackers?

For all you health nuts wanting to eat more fiber or less saturated fat but are skeptical about the ethics / good will of corporate food marketing policies, here's a primer on reading a food label. I'm including several resources at the end for you to investigate further – there's a lot written about this!

Nutrition labels allow consumers to know how much of specific nutrients are in the product, enable comparison between similar products, and require companies to back up their nutrition or dietary claims ("Excellent source of calcium!") with information on the package and subsequent inspections to verify it. (All this in pre-Shutdown U.S., of course, you might avoid some non-labeled fish and produce these next few weeks).

muesli ingredients and nutrition labels in many tongues
(none of which looks legible here, but trust me)
To help ensure that foods are safe for eating, many countries require packaged foods to be labeled, and the format is similar for most of them.

(One exception is the requirement by most developed countries, except the U.S., that genetically-modified (GM) foods have that fact noted on their nutritional label.)

For example, this clear run-down, from a Canadian blog, on the contents of nutrition labels easily applies to labels in many countries.

In the early 1900s, before laws and labeling, filthy conditions in meat-packing plants, foods containing poisonous preservatives and dyes, and "cure-all claims for worthless and dangerous patent medicines" led the U.S. Congress to pass initial food and drug safety laws.

In fact, the U.S. finally standardized its food labeling as recently as 1990 (!!), when new legislation required all packaged foods to display nutrition labeling. It also standardized the food ingredient panel, serving sizes, and terms such as "low fat" and "light."

So let's see a nutrition label

To help consumers understand what's inside a given product, all packaged foods (yes, including chocolate!) in a grocery store must have an ingredient list, together with a nutrition label, such as these two:

basic sections of a standard food label (Canada) – you can see from the
vitamin contents that man cannot live by bread alone (OK, sorry)
image: NutritionRX

standard food label (U.S.) with recommended allowances – maybe man can live
by mac & cheese alone, but man would probably gain weight
image: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Full nutrition labels show the standard serving size, number of calories per serving (no, not for the whole box...), and amounts of some 13-15 core nutrients. In the U.S., total fat, sodium, carbohydrates and protein must be shown, regardless of the amount.

no packaging, no labels
image: JustRealFoods
These 11 additional nutrients are usually shown but may be left out if they are zero: total calories, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, sugars, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.

The label is required for most prepared foods, including breads, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts, drinks, and, more recently in the U.S., chopped raw meat.

In the U.S., labels are not required for raw fruits, vegetables, and fish. In Canada, raw meats are also voluntary. Some countries also label non-nutritional products, such as alcohol, coffee, and tea.

Food nutrition and health claims

A food company can claim products are “low cholesterol” or “fat free” only if the food meets certain legal standards set by the government. For example, in the U.S.:
  • Fat Free = less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving
  • Low Fat = 3 grams of fat (or less) per serving
  • Lean = less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and no more than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving
  • Light (Lite) = 1/3 fewer calories or no more than ½ the fat of the higher-calorie, higher-fat version; or no more than ½ the sodium of the higher-sodium version
  • Cholesterol Free = Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams (or less) of saturated fat per serving.
Got all that?

Based on these standards, companies can:

Make health claims about... Only if the food inside the package is...
Heart disease and fats Low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol
Blood pressure and sodium Low in sodium
Heart disease A fruit, vegetable or grain product low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, that contains at least 0.6 gram soluble fiber, without fortification, per serving

Nutrition label resources

If you've been trying to consume fewer calories or limited amounts of sugar, sodium, or fat, or if you want to increase your intake of vitamins or fiber, you may already know how to read at least key parts of the food label.

The ingredient list, which lists the ingredients in descending order by weight, is equally important for anyone trying to avoid certain food items (e.g. peanuts, shellfish, gluten) or cut back on  fat or sugar (keep sucrose, or glucose, or high-fructose corn syrup, etc. near the bottom of the list!).

There is a huge amount of information about nutrition labels available on line, with a lot of overlap but different styles to suit your interests. Here are just a few:

For athletes, Runners World weighs in with a good description that inspired this post

truth in packaging labels?
image: CollegeHumor
Some color-coded explanations and suggestions for reading and using food label information at Ariix (caveat: they sell a weight-loss product, but the information was helpful)

A more academic but very clear description, from the University of Pennsylvania medical school

The unbiased low-down on U.S. food labels from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Facts about different countries' nutrition labels at Wikipedia

And, for a chuckle, some more truth in food labels at College Humor.


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