How to Decode Them
Calories," "Fat-Free," "Organic", chances are you've come across these words while perusing items at the local grocery store.
But what do they all mean?
Is checking information on food labels like opening a newspaper in a foreign land?
(It would be nice if they made the print a little larger too!)
It's pretty easy to deem something covered in salt as unhealthy, but there is much more that goes into deciphering the facts.
Several surveys now show that most people claim to check the labels when shopping, but may not use that information in making food purchases.
Many shoppers don’t know how to interpret the data on labels, or how to use it to create an overall healthy diet.
A real-world example to help put things into perspective.
Millions of us are trying to do the right thing for ourselves and our families by buying healthy food.
But, how much can we rely on the health information on food labels?
More and more, companies are slapping hollow claims on their products to drive up sales, and even obscure potential health risks.
Figuring Out Fat
When seeking a fat-conscious breakfast option, how does oatmeal sound?
Looking at the label for the original version of Quaker Instant Oatmeal, the product has a total of two g. of fat, none of it trans or saturated.
We can deem it a good choice because trans fats and saturated fats can boost cholesterol levels, leading to heart disease.
The general makeup of fat in the oatmeal comes from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats—both considered to be "healthy."
As long as they are eaten in moderation, there is no need to avoid them.
As a general rule, keep this in mind: no more than a third of the total calories in an item should come from fat.
To calculate this quickly, divide the calories from fat by the total number of calories in a serving and multiply by the result by 100.
Of the oatmeal's 100-calorie serving, twenty come from fat.
Therefore, 20% of the oatmeal's calories come from fat, confirming our belief that it's a healthy, low-fat choice for breakfast.
In a 2003 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), 83 percent of people reported that they always or sometimes looked at ingredient or nutrition information.
It's All About the Sugar
When looking at a label for Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce, you'll see that it's fat free, but does that mean it's healthy?
Look a little closer and you'll notice its high sugar content, a whopping 21 g. per serving.
In general, the grams of sugar found on nutritional labels are forms of fructose, the main sugar found in food.
Labels don’t have to specify types of sugars, but keep in mind that although the body can break down simple sugars like fructose in small amounts, high amounts of them will not be converted into glucose—energy, but will instead form compounds of fat.
Of course sugars are found in many foods, including healthy items like fruits and vegetables.
The difference is that fruits and vegetables also contain vitamins, antioxidants, and belly-filling fiber, so ounce for ounce, they are more satisfying and nutritionally dense than sugar filled foods.
Labels might also state that a food is “sugar free” or has “no sugar added.”
The former meaning less than .5 g. of sugar per serving, while the latter means that no sugar was added to the product during production or packing.
According to a 2004 survey by the Food Marketing Institute, a similar 83 percent said that they always or sometimes checked the Nutrition Facts panel when buying a food item for the first time.
In a 2006 Associated Press poll, nearly 80 percent claimed to check food labels.
In the IFIC survey, people most often noted considering calorie and total fat content, followed by sodium, saturated fat, sugar, cholesterol and carbohydrates.
Many consumers reported they were “aware” of the information on specific nutrients yet a far smaller percentage stated they used that information to decide about a purchase.
Sizing Up The Sodium
Sodium is an essential nutrient and is necessary for normal bodily function, but too much of it can lead to hypertension.
For adults under the age of 51, the maximum daily intake is 1500 to 2000 milligrams.
Beans are a versatile, protein-filled ingredient.
When looking at a can of Bush’s Best Original Baked Beans, seasoned with bacon and brown sugar, the label states that the product is 98 percent fat free and high in fiber.
Although the baked beans do have six grams of protein and five grams of dietary fiber per serving, they are jam-packed with sodium, 550 milligrams in just ½ cup.
So if you stick to the suggested baked-bean portion size, you might be okay if you limit your salt intake throughout the rest of the day.
But otherwise, look for a low-sodium alternative (35 ml. or fewer per serving).
Try seasoning sodium-free canned beans with garlic, herbs, and just a pinch of salt.
The IFIC held several focus groups in 2004 to probe more deeply into consumers’ attitudes and knowledge about food labels.
Many people were confused about Daily Values listed on labels and said that nutrition information was too complicated, or required too much math.
People in the focus groups seemed to base judgments about portions more on package size than on the serving size listed on the label.
Understanding Food Labels.
Tips on decoding nutritional information:
~ 5 percent or less of 'Daily Value' on a nutrition label means a food is relatively low in a nutrient, while 20 percent or higher means the food is relatively high.
~ Total calories are more significant for weight control than fat calories or carbohydrate calories.
~ Remember to check the portion size on the nutrition label since nutritional values are based on that rather than package size.
~ Keep in mind how the individual foods fit into your total diet.
A good rule of thumb is to fill no more than a third of your plate with meat, poultry or fish, and fill two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.
In a 2006 Food and Health Survey by IFIC, more than half the participants reported trying to change their diet.
Weight control and reducing calories were listed as top priorities.
Although calorie content was identified as the most often checked nutrition information, 88 percent of participants were unable to accurately estimate their daily calorie needs, and 43 percent would not even guess.
People were unsure whether total calories, fat calories, or carbohydrate calories are most significant for weight control. (It is total calories.)
What 'Daily Value' really means.
When consumers check fat or sodium, they may be uncertain about how much is too much.
Daily Values on labels, while apparently widely misunderstood, are meant to help.
The “% of Daily Value” listing provides a quick tool:
5 percent or less of DV means a food is relatively low in a nutrient, while 20 percent or higher of DV means a food is relatively high.
Another problem is that shoppers may be using food labels to screen out what not to eat, but then find themselves uncertain of what to eat to create a healthful diet.
For example, while the nutrition label may help us choose the most nutritious crackers, it doesn’t show how those crackers fit into overall healthful eating.
Whether your goal is lower risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or better overall health, experts agree on the basic eating pattern.
A "Good Source" of Information.
When reading food packages, you may notice phrases like an "excellent source of vitamin-A" or "good source of fiber
These may sound like somewhat meaningless claims, but they are actually regulated terms and there is a science to their use.
They refer to the daily value percentage of nutrients, found in the far right column on a nutrition label.
For example, a can of Progresso Vegetable Classics Garden Vegetable soup has 500 milligrams of potassium per serving, which equates to 14% of the daily value.
According to the FDA’s rules, a serving of food that meets 10 to 19 percent of the daily value of a nutrient makes it a "good source" of that nutrient.
Twenty percent or higher would make it an "excellent source."
The vegetable soup's potassium level makes it a good source of the nutrient, essential for healthy heart function.
The soup is also a good source of Vitamin-A, meeting 15% of the daily value.
But look elsewhere to meet calcium and vitamin-C requirements, with both adding up to less than 5% of suggested amounts, this soup is a poor source of those nutrients.
So What counts as a serving?
*** Bread, cereal, rice and pasta.
1 slice of bread.
1 oz. of ready-to-eat cereal.
1/2 c. of cooked cereal, rice, or pasta.
1 c. of raw leafy vegetables.
1/2 c. of other vegetables, cooked or chopped raw.
3/4 c. of vegetable juice.
1 medium apple, banana, orange
1/2 c. of chopped, cooked, or canned fruit.
3/4 c. of fruit juice.
*** Milk, yogurt and cheese.
1 c. of milk or yogurt
1.5 ounces of natural cheese.
2 ounces of processed cheese.
*** Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts.
2-3 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish.
1/2 c. of cooked dry beans or 1 egg counts as 1 ounce of lean meat.
2 Tbs. of peanut butter or 1/3 cup of nuts count as 1 ounce of meat.
It seems like there is an organic version of everything these days, from produce and snacks, to non-food items such as deodorant and shampoo.
But it takes consumer savvy to understand the labeling laws.
A box of Kashi Autumn Wheat cereal bears the green "USDA Organic" seal.
This means the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program regulates the standards of its producer.
This logo appears on single-ingredient foods, as well as products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients.
Any product labeled as organic must identify each organically produced ingredient on the ingredient section of the information panel; the certifying agent must be displayed as well.
Meeting all these criteria, the Kashi cereal is legally designated as "organic".
Sometimes you'll also see the words "Made With Organic Ingredients" on a food label.
These products contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, but do not bear the USDA organic seal.
Hopefully this will shed some light on what at times is a very confusing nutrition issue, but with due diligence and consistency, you will...master the art.Tweet
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