So many of us rely on food labels as we shop, but do they provide all of the information we need? Or do we really understand all of it? I am not suggesting that food labeling laws are designed to hoodwink us, but without a degree in nutrition, some ingredients are at best confusing and at worst misleading. Though most of the information on the labels is straight forward, you often need to read between the lines to avoid some common misinterpretations.
As for me, label reading has forever changed the way I shop in the grocery store. Food shopping used to be a 10-minute no-brainer, back when my top priorities were ease of preparation and cost control. A frozen pepperoni pizza, a package of hot dogs, a couple cans of creamed corn, and off to the check-out line I went. When I began my healthy crusade, I started to read nutrition labels randomly while shopping. My new found knowledge dramatically changed my shopping experience. I eventually examined every package, box, can, bag or jar I considered purchasing. So many items are off my shopping list as a result of label reading that I now skip entire aisles in the grocery store. A patient at one of my clinics once asked, “So where are most of the foods that we should avoid at the store,Doc?” Because healthy, unprocessed foods are commonly found at the perimeter of most markets,I replied, “Almost everything in the middle.” Reading labels may feel like a chore at first, but trust me, the education you’ll get and the discoveries you’ll make regarding your own eating habits will be time well spent. Before long, you will be dashing through the market, stopping only now and again to take a quick peek at the back labels of a few new items that catch your eye.
Interpreting the Labels
Nutritional information on product labels is regulated by the federal government, so label formats look pretty much the same from item to item. Let’s take a look at a 15-ounce can of refried beans (no salt added).
There are two sections of every label:
Nutrition Facts and Ingredients.
Your ability to figure out and evaluate what these two sections are telling you about the amounts and types of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals a packaged food product contains is essential for your healthy diet and weight maintenance success.
But before you skip right to these numbers, there are two values you need to check first: “Serving Size” and “Servings per Container,” which are always listed first and in fine print.
The only items that are in bold print are: Amount Per Serving, Calories, % Daily Values, Total Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium, Total Carbohydrate, and Protein.
Notice that these bolded values are per serving. One of the biggest mistakes consumers make is assuming that the grams and calories that are listed are calculated for the entire package, can, bag, or box (probably because our appetites are conditioned to see it them as a serving for one person).
For example, according to this label, the can of refried beans contains 3 1/2,129-gram servings (129 grams is 1/2 cup or 4 ounces). So the 100 calories listed on the label corresponds with the list of values in the nutritional information, not what we are actually holding in our hand—350 calories of refried beans.
Daily Value (DV)
An umbrella term established by the federal government to calculate the daily nutritional needs for an average, healthy adult.It is based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories.
The DV is an approximate number based on the Daily ReferenceValue (DRV) for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sodium, potassium, and protein; and on the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for 19 vitamins and minerals. The RDIs replaced the U.S.Recommended Daily Allowances (U.S. RDA), which were introduced in the early 1970s.
The DRVs and RDIs actually differ depending on age and gender, making for a long (and cumbersome) list. It would be impractical to include the mon a label, so the government decided to play it safe by basing each DV on the highest number for the particular DRV or RDI value. Although the highest number is usually the requirement for men, the DRV values and some RDI values such as iron were based on the requirement for post menopausal women, the most often targeted group for weight reduction.
Keep thisin mind, in addition to everything else you learn in this secion, whencomparing the information on a label to your personal needs. (Visit the web site more information on “Daily Values”)
To figure out the nutritional values of the whole container (since we usually do not eat the exact serving size suggested on th e label), you must multiply each value by 3.5, then divide the total by the number of servings you really intend to dish out. That’s not simple arithmetic when you are standing in the middle of a food aisle. Just keep in mind that serving sizes vary for similar products. Most manufacturers utilize the standard, accepted serving sizes for particular food items or food groups though (one tablespoon of ketchup, one ounce of nuts, one cup etc.).
The fractionated number of total servings is usually a result of the container size they have chosen and is unintentional.Sport or food supplement bars are notorious for confusing the consumer. The calorie amount and ingredient percentages (listed in bold print) may look pleasing until you notice that the little bar is more than one serving (listed in fine print)! Why?
The assumption is that a product with 200 calories per serving and two servings seems more appealing than 400 calories per serving and one serving.
Can you see how a quick glance at the calorie count on a label can be mis- leading if you don’t carefully compare serving size, price, and ingredients before making your purchase? The government mandates that packages must have nutrition labeling, but it is up to manufacturers to set their serving sizes.
Hopefully, in the future, there will be standards set for all serving sizes, but for now, it’s your job to keep an eye on those labels.
Label confusion, however, does not end there. There are other important hidden facts that can be both helpful and harmful to your health and weight management goals. For example, the total carbohydrate listed will not always be the amount available to burn as energy. If the food contains indigestible(insoluble) fiber, the fiber value should be subtracted from the total carbohydrate because not all of the fiber can be burned as fuel.Furthermore, there are a few substances that are used by the body but are not yet a part of the government requirements for label listing, such as glycerine, the backbone of triglycerides and a component of fat. They are not counted under the umbrella of total carbo- hydrate calories but yield the same four calories per gram. So when the total calories don’t equal the amount of carbs, protein, and fat (calculated
SUGAR: The FDA defines sugar as “the sum of all free mono- and disaccharides.” from their respective calories per gram), you will know that there is something in the Ingredients not calculated into the NutritionFacts
An easy way to check for hidden calories is to convert the grams listed for the three fuels into calories, add them up and compare the total to the calories per serving size listed on the label. If there is a difference, you will know the package of food contains substances other than protein, fat, and usable carbohydrates.
Let’s see how the refried beans measure up.
19 grams of total carbohydrates x 4 calories per gram =76 calories
5 grams of protein x 4calories per gram= 20 calories
0 grams of fat x 9 calories per gram= 0 calories
Total calculated from grams per serving: 96 calories
Since the can claims 100 calories per each 3.5 serving in the can, and each serving has 4 unaccountable calories, then you can assume that the can contains about 14 unaccountable calories. All we can say is that there is something else in that can worth 14 calories.Wonder what it is …Fat information is easy to evaluate. Because the saturated fat value is sub-listed, all you need to do to get a value for unsaturated fat is subtract the saturated value from the total fat value (unless the manufacturer voluntarily lists it).
You should always try to select products that have more unsaturated than saturated fat. Cholesterol is listed separately and for good reason. Keep in mind that cholesterol is a potentially harmful artery-clogging type of fat derivative only found in animal products. Since it does not have any calories, it can accumulate in the blood if it goes unchecked. You want to minimize it for the health of your arteries and heart.
The total carbohydrate value is actually a subtracted, indirect value which results in calories‘ left over’ after protein and fat calories have been calculated. There are better ways to test each product for the exact amounts of protein and fat (the testing is done at the food manufacturer’s expense). These specific tests are performed for fat, protein and total calories only. In some cases the total calories are calculated by burning the product and calculating the heat given off. The total calorie value minus calories calculated from fat and protein equals the total carbohydrate calorie value. And that includes anything “extra” from the packaging process minus the ash from the heat testing process. On the positive side, the “total carbohydrate” has a subset for the amount of “sugars.” The FDA defines the sugar listing on food labels as “the sum of all free mono- and disaccharides.”
Now that you know what these chemicals are, it will be easier to identify them in the INGREDIENTS portion of a label and limit the number of insulin-stimulating simple carbs in your diet.
Let’s get down to the tricky area of Ingredients.
Packaged foods usually contain food dyes and thickening agents in order to give food consistency, eye appeal and shelf life. These added ingredients are a fact of life if you are going to eat packaged or processed foods, but thankfully they are in small doses. Ingredients are listed by weight, beginning with the largest item and ending with the smallest. Many products can be ruled in or out of your diet simply by checking the first three to five ingredients.For the sake of a healthy diet, you need to check for key words with hidden meanings that can sabotage your diet.
Because most products with labels are processed, the main offenders to watch out for are processed carbohydrates. Foremost is the key word enriched because it means that most of these foods have been stripped of their natural vitamins and minerals and processed into behaving more like a simple carbohydrate. Commercial grade flour is obtained by removing the germ, fiber, and nutrients from wheat or other grains. In order to give it a nutritional boost, manufacturers have to put something back into it, enabling them to make the claim, “enriched with important vitamins and minerals.” Some other ingredients sound harmless but are really wolves in sheep’s cloth- ing, hiding behind common or complex chemical names.
For example, canned fruit contains its natural fructose but it can also contain added high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is concentrated simple carbohydrates and translates into more insulin released. HFCS is only partially fructose; the rest is processed sucrose or table sugar!Another example is maltodextrin, which is an easily digestible starch similar to modified food starch. Mannitol and sorbitol are alcohol sugars. All can contribute to an unnatural response to food and eventually more fat storage.The word hydrogenated describes a type of oil or fat. Hydrogenating any unsaturated fat or oil (sunflower, safflower, corn, soybean, etc.) automatically turns it into a saturated fat. Any product listing hydrogentated oil high in the ingredient ranking should be on your “avoid” list.
Hydrogenating any fat or oil automatically turns it into a saturated fat…. More importantly…. unhealthy…trans fat.More importantly, hydrogenation produces a type of unhealthy saturated fat called transfat that is not made by Mother Nature. Trans fat is the worst kind off at because it not only clogs arteries and can contribute to heart disease; it can directly damage your cells.Bottom line: Be cautious if any undesired ingredient is placed at the beginning of the Ingredient line-up.
However, you needn’t be too concerned about ingredients less than 1 gram or those proceeded by“contains less than 2% of the following items.”
Some manufacturers already do include more information on their labels than is required by government regulations. Hopefully, this will eventually be- come the norm. close second. Not surprising, since both are processed from natural carbohydrates.
Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
A lot of ingredients found in packaged foods either sound harmless or are disguised by complex or chemical names that require scientific translation. This goes for both friendly and unfriendly weight management items. In addition, the list of all possible ingredients is huge. The following is a list of some of the more common ingredients that you should look out for, particularly if they appear at the beginning of the list of ingredients.
• Enriched flour - Processed grain stripped of its natural micronutrients and fiber; has a higher Glycemic Index.
• High fructose syrups - Contains processed fructose and sucrose; has a low GI, but with latent insulin release.
• Modified food starch - Thickening agent that is primarily processed carbs with a higher GI
• Maltodextrin - Another polysaccharide that is primarily processed carbs with a higher GI.
• Monosodium glutamate (MSG) - Taste enhancer that adds more sodium to your diet and can cause headaches.
• Glycerine - Part of a fat molecule that has 4 calories per gram and is not counted in the Nutrition Facts
• Hydrogenated oils - Conversion of unsaturated oils to saturated fat produces trans-fatty acids.
• Lard - Fat from animal sources with a very high level of saturated fat.
The advent of processed food and the enormity of the products on the market that contain questionable ingredients, is in part, the reason food labeling has become so important.Consumers need to know what they are consuming.And that brings me back to the point I made at the beginning of this section. If we’d just stick with Mother Nature and concentrate our shopping in the fresh produce aisles, we wouldn’t have to wonder about what we really are putting in our bodies.