Over the last 20 years the Food and Drug Administration has made food labels mandatory by law in an effort to improve the transparency of the ingredients in the foods we eat, including the nutrition values they contain. Sometimes food labels work in favor of the public’s health and nutrition, but sometimes they are a manufacturer’s marketing tool. Labels are a source of confusion and can inhibit people from following a healthy diet. And it helps to keep in mind that most food label information applies to adults and not children.
At the top of the food label is serving size and servings per container. A serving size should refer to a sensibly sized portion of the particular food. However, manufacturers may recommend a serving size which is not realistic while encouraging one to think the food is less caloric, fattening or sugary. For example, if you are eating a chocolate bar, sometimes the food label indicates the whole bar as one serving. One could eat the whole bar and consume just what the food label describes. In other instances, the recommended serving size for a chocolate bar is 1/4 of the bar. The subsequent food label numbers, such as calories and sugar and saturated fat, will only cover ¼ of the chocolate, so factor in the servings per container and multiply that by the amount you eat, so if you are going to have the whole bar, multiply the calories, fat, and sugar four times to understand what you are actually consuming.-
Calories measure the overall energy a food provides. Depending on one’s goals, food labels allow one to compare similar foods and assess which have more calories and which have less calories. Processed and refined foods generally have more calories per ounce. For example, one ounce of cookies has more calories than an ounce of apple or string cheese. Total carbohydrates include the carbohydrates consumed in the form of complex carbohydrates, sugar, and fiber. While not all carbohydrates are created equal, total carbohydrates may provide you with the information needed for carbohydrate counting.
Along with saturated fat and trans fats, sugar is greatly worth limiting. Excessive sugar is linked to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and many more illnesses. Four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon of sugar. For example, a yogurt may have 24 grams of sugar or six teaspoons of sugar. It is recommended men limit sugar intake to nine teaspoons per day and that women limit themselves to six teaspoons per day.
Fiber comes from plant based foods which are not digested by the body. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are common fiber sources. Fiber adds satiety to a meal and helps stabilize blood sugar. It also improves digestion and regularity. Try including cereals with five or more grams of fiber in your diet and three or more grams of fiber in a serving of crackers and breads.
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that vary in caloric content and affect on blood sugar. Sugar alcohols have been used as food additives for decades. For someone with diabetes, sugar alcohols, used effectively, can expand the variety of foods they can enjoy while still maintaining a healthy blood sugar. More recently, sugar alcohols are used as a sugar replacer, to expand the number of sugar-free and lower calorie foods. When selecting foods with sugar alcohols one may see “net carb” or “impact carb” on the label. They may mean nothing as these labels are not regulated by the FDA. For a generally healthy person, opt for a moderate amount of sugar or non-dietetic food rather than foods processed with sugar alcohol additives.
Products labeled cholesterol-free are thought to be heart healthy, but cholesterol may be the most misunderstood content on a food label. Eating food with cholesterol does not trans late into getting high cholesterol. Saturated fat and trans fats are twice as likely to raise cholesterol and have an adverse effect on cholesterol and heart disease.
Protein is likely the least confusing portion of the food label. Along with cholesterol, this is not the area of the food label most people need to focus on unless one is on a diet which limits or increases their protein intake.
Food labels divide the fat category into different types of fat. Monounsaturated fats are good for you, as are polyunsaturated fats—for the most part. Saturated fat and trans fat intake should be limited. Even if you are trying to gain weight or have your child increase his or her caloric intake, adding foods high in saturated or trans fats is not recommended.
FDA regulations say a product can be labeled trans fat free if it has 0.5g of trans fat or less per serving. Manufacturers can serving sizes smaller to qualify for a trans fat label, but the portion may not be practical. In such cases, a person may consume many grams of trans fat while thinking it is a trans fat free product.
Bess Berger is a Registered Dietitian and practices in Teaneck. She consults and counsels on general nutrition and medically-nutrition related issues. Bess can be reached at 201 837 0546 or bessbergerRD_gmail.com
By Bess Berger