Behind The Label: Boost Nutrition Label Literacy

by Julie Olson 

Nutrition facts labels are meant to be easily read, but can be confusing, misleading and even inaccurate. “The American consumer is at a disadvantage when it comes to reading food labels, namely because we don’t speak metric. Our food labels are in grams, but our kitchen language is in teaspoons,” says Kimberly Lord Stewart, editor of NFM sister publication Functional Ingredients and author of Eating Between the Lines: The Supermarket Shopper’s Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007). 

Relying on the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that products actually contain what the label says they contain may also be iffy, according to a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The organization points to the April 19, 2006 FDA report that implied that more than 28,000 nutrition labels were checked in a 14-month period. CSPI found that the FDA only checked to see whether or not the nutrition facts panel was present, not whether it was accurate. FDA representatives did not respond to NFM’s requests for comment by press time. 

Breaking it down Nutrition facts labels are divided into the following categories:

  • Serving size. Serving sizes are standardized to compare similar foods. They are provided in units, such as cups or pieces, followed by metric amounts, such as the number of grams. But these serving sizes don’t always reflect the amount a person normally consumes at once. For example, a 20-ounce beverage has about 2.5 servings in the container, but most people drink the entire beverage.
  • Calories. The calories section consists of two parts: calories and calories from fat. Calories refers to the total amount of calories in one serving. Calories from fat tells you how many of the total calories are from fat in the food. Remember that these numbers do not tell how many calories are in the entire package, just one serving.
  • Percent daily values. These are the FDA’s recommendations of how much fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients consumers should be getting each day. “Most people don’t understand the percentages or that these recommendations are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. In other words, people can’t equate the percentages to the food they eat nor do they keep track of it,” says Dave Grotto, R.D., author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life (Bantam, 2007).
  • Sodium. Salt isn’t always labeled in easily recognizable words. Stewart says in her book, Eating Between the Lines, that any ingredient that includes chloride is most likely some form of salt, as is monosodium glutamate, sodium citrate, sodium nitrate, sodium phosphate, sodium saccharin and even baking soda and baking powder.

“A food may be labeled as ‘healthy’ if it contains 480 milligrams of sodium per serving. Visually, most consumers have little idea how much sodium that is—until they know that 1 teaspoon contains 2,400 milligrams,” Stewart says. Physicians recommend consumption of no more than 2,400 milligrams per day for optimum heart health. In that context, this so-called ‘healthy’ food contains one-fifth of one’s recommended daily consumption for sodium. And if the serving size is unrealistic, it is not difficult to double or even triple this number.” 

  • Ingredients. Ingredients are listed on the label in order by weight, from highest to lowest. But this list is not much help for customers if the words are unrecognizable, especially for consumers who have a food allergy or sensitivity. For instance, if a customer needs to avoid corn, she must look not only for anything listed as corn, but also ingredients that could be made from corn such as malt extract and syrup, sorbitol, food starch, dextrin, fructose and fructose syrup, baking powder, monosodium glutamate, maltodextrin and confectioner’s sugar, Grotto says.

The .5 rule
The word no on a nutrition facts label means none, but that’s not necessarily what zero means. By law, manufacturers are allowed to list “0” even if their product contains up to a half a gram of a nutrient or fat. Coffee creamers, for example, may contain 30 percent or 40 percent total fat, but by defining the serving size as 1 teaspoon, the manufacturer may state on the label that one serving has “0 g fat.” 

Because of this “.5 rule,” Stewart says it’s not enough to only read the nutritional panel—read all the ingredients. For instance, a product may say “0 grams trans fats per serving” but still list partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in the ingredients. The “per serving” clause should raise a mental red flag because fractions of a gram can add up if the consumer eats more than one serving.

Reading a label for sugar also takes some detective work, says Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., certified nutrition specialist, and author of Get the Sugar Out (Three Rivers Press, 2008). Sometimes there will be small amounts of many types of sugars, so none of them end up being in the first few ingredients of the label. Other times, sugar masquerades as a more “healthy” ingredient, in the form of honey, rice syrup or even organic dehydrated cane juice, Gittleman says. She points out that often, fruit juice concentrates will be used as a sweetener, which sounds wholesome, but by the time they are “concentrated,” very little remains but the sugar. Also look for the words syrup, sweetener and anything ending in -ose. If the label says “no added sugars,” it could contain naturally occurring sugars (such as lactose in milk) that should show up on the nutrition facts label.

Other elements are exempt from being labeled, or may be stated in a way that makes it difficult for the consumer to understand. This includes genetically modified ingredients, irradiated ingredients and ingredients from cloned animals. In 2006, the FDA released a formal recommendation to allow milk and meat from cloned animals on grocery store shelves, without labels identifying them as such.

Food labels can also hide good nutrients, Grotto says. “The true value of the food is beyond its label because they don’t list all the vitamins and minerals, nor do they list the phytonutrients it may contain.” Some of the most nutritious foods—fruits and vegetables—are not required by law to have a nutrition facts label. In the meantime, CSPI has urged Congress to increase funding to the FDA and direct the agency to make systematic supermarket sweeps and accuracy tests of nutrition facts labels.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p. 26,29

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