What’s In That?
You’ve seen me in the grocery store aisle: I’m the one staring at the fine print on food labels with a puzzled look. I see nutrient listings and a breakdown of ingredients, but how do I make the final decision to purchase this item or the one next to it? Or neither?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1994 mandated nutrition labeling for most food products. Packaged foods must display information about the standard serving measurement, calories and a breakdown of constituent elements. Uniformly titled “Nutrition Facts,” the label is now a staple on boxes, bags, cans and bottles.
“Many people must read labels carefully because they have food allergies or intolerances,” says Wendy Meyerson, owner of Natur-Tyme in East Syracuse. “But we should all look at the number of calories, serving size, and go over the ingredients list.” Meyerson says more and more people these days are questioning what goes into their food.
Separated into five sections, showing serving size, calories, nutrients, percentage of daily values and ingredients, nutrition labels can help consumers compare similar products and identify ingredients and nutrients to seek out or avoid.
Serving size tells you how many servings are in the package. Shown in both familiar units, such as cups or pieces, and metric measures for the number of grams, serving size is an important component of the Nutrition Facts panel. Americans generally eat more than they need, many times because the packaged food appears to be one serving when it actually contains multiple servings.
You might think that one can of ready-to-serve Progresso Traditional Chicken Noodle soup is sized for one serving, but the serving size says that the 19 oz. can holds “about 2” servings. If you ate the entire can, you would consume 2 1/4 servings!
Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of food. The calories per serving are shown both as a total figure and also as the amount of calories that come from fats. For those reducing their fat intake, this breakdown can be important, but just as important is the amount of calories in the final prepared food.
For example, a serving (one-third of a package) of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese contains 260 calories as packaged, but once prepared, with milk and butter, jumps to 410 calories. A three-quarter-cup serving of General Mills’ Berry Berry Kix cereal has just 100 calories dry, but adding a half-cup of skim milk increases the calorie count to 140.
Nutrition labels also provide a breakdown of nutrients for a standard 2,000-calorie diet. But your body may need more or less depending on height, weight, gender, age and activity level. Many of us get more calories than we need from food, resulting in energy that isn’t used in the course of a day and accumulates in the form of body fat.
In the Nutrients and % Daily Value section of the nutrition label, nutrients to limit are shown first: fat, cholesterol and sodium. Fats to avoid are saturated and trans fats, while including some of the healthier fats like polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats, which can benefit your health when eaten in moderation.
Health experts recommend keeping the amount of fat, cholesterol and sodium as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet. Re-examining that can of Traditional Chicken Noodle soup will tell me that if I felt especially hungry and ate the entire can, not only would I more than double my calorie intake, I would be receiving nearly 90 percent of my sodium requirement for the day!
Also shown on the nutrients listing are dietary fiber, vitamins, calcium and iron. The % Daily Value column will help you determine how much of your recommended daily intake the food provides.
“Clearly, it can be challenging,” says Meyerson. “But with the education and empowerment of the individual, some progress can be made from the minimum government requirements.”
Talk about “fine print”! The ingredients list on some packaged foods reads like a chemistry lab. Some scary-sounding items may be quite beneficial (thiamin mononitrate is a B1 vitamin) while others have neutral health effects but are highly processed (maltodextrin is a starchy food thickener). Still others are suspected of negative side effects and should be avoided, especially by children.
“The order of ingredients is important,” adds Meyerson. “For example, if you’re buying an oat product and oats are the second or third item on the ingredient list, or is followed by sugar or high fructose corn syrup, then that is a product you should avoid.”
Labeling is required for processed, refined foods but “whole foods” do not require labels. There aren’t any Nutrition Facts panels on the side of a Cortland apple, a head of romaine lettuce, or a bag of carrots. Not only are these items as close to nature made them as possible, but they can be consumed without fear of overdosing on fats or sodium. In fact, they are packed with so many nutrients that they overshadow their processed and packaged counterparts if compared nutritionally. You might consider the absence of a label as a “sign” that the food has more positives going for it than negatives.
“Food is the first line of defense for a healthy body,” says Meyerson, “but some foods today are more harmful than beneficial to overall health.” Understanding nutrition labels can make a fuzzy process crystal clear.