A 2005 AJ Nielsen & Co. study found that 50% of consumers understood nutrition labels, and this was only “in part.” Although, two out of 10 said they consistently read them. With so many preventable diseases in America (like obesity), education and consumer knowledge should be addressed and something as simple as a food label (which is meant to help) shouldn’t be “cryptic” to so many.
Starting from the top of the label, for example, you’ll find the serving size and servings per container. This is not meant to be deceiving, but so many people overlook the serving size – and their serving size is most likely a lot bigger than what is stated. Many companies do this purposely so they can somewhat manipulate the numbers below to make their food appear healthier (like lower in fat or calories).
Consumers should pay close attention to this first piece of information as it could drastically change their opinion of the product they are selecting. Most foods that are similar should now have the same serving size but, like the old adage, “caveat emptor,” the buyer should still be careful and read.
Keeping in mind the serving size, the rest of the label will show the amount of an ingredient per serving. Moving down, next would be calories, fat content, sodium, carbohydrate content and then protein as seen in the example to the right.
Fat and carbohydrate content is broken down further into the different components of each. Many specialized diets, whether for a medical condition like heart disease or for general dieting, focus on one or the other (sometimes both) and this information is necessary for those individuals. Excess fat in the diet can lead to heart disease and cancer.
In general, everyone should limit the amount of saturated and trans fat in their diet as these forms have a very strong correlation with disease. Carbohydrates may contain fiber and sugar. Fiber can help lower the risk of some cancers and heart disease and is found in plant based products like fruits and vegetables. Sugar comes in different forms and gives foods their “sweet” taste, but can add plenty of empty (no nutritional value) calories.
Fat packs the highest “caloric punch” with nine calories/gram while 1 gram (g) of a protein or carbohydrate is only four calories! The healthiest fats are unsaturated (monounsaturated or MUFAs=MonoUnsaturated Fatty Acids). These are found in foods such as extra virgin olive oil and nuts, and research has shown that they may benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are next, in order of healthiness, and are more in the middle. These are found in foods like fish and soy, and contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial, and omega-6, which should be limited. Research has shown this type of fat can decrease blood cholesterol levels and the risk of type 2 diabetes, but there is some recent research indicating it may not be as beneficial as thought.
Lastly, saturated fat (found in animal sources of food, like beef) and trans fats (mostly from food processing- hydrogenating) have little to no benefit and should be very limited in the diet. Research has shown they can actually raise LDL levels (bad cholesterol in the blood) and lower HDL (good cholesterol) raising your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Since Jan. 1, 2006, food manufacturers are required to list the amount of trans fat in a serving and it should be on most food labels by now. Cholesterol, which isn’t really a fat, but a waxy, fat-like substance, is found in the diet and made in the body. Your body needs it to function properly but, as with anything, excess can have a negative impact. Cholesterol is found in animal products, same as saturated fat, so by limiting one you are also limiting the other.
Sodium is a mineral whose intake should be kept low to help decrease high blood pressure and lower your risk for stroke, heart and kidney disease. The recommended daily amount (RDA) is 2,300 mg./day but may be lowered to 1,500 mg./day for those with any of the above conditions (like high blood pressure), people older than 51 years of age and all African Americans.
Carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for the human body so they should make up the bulk of the diet (somewhere between 45%-60% of total daily calories). However, typical American diets ingest too many empty calories from highly processed foods containing their favorite carb or sugar and then pair it up with little to no exercise to burn off those calories, leading to obesity. The best choices for carbohydrates are fruits, vegetables, beans and 100% whole grains. Foods that have at least three grams of fiber and less than five grams of sugar per serving are good sources.
FDA regulation 21 CFR 101.81 says the daily dietary intake levels of soluble fiber associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease are three grams or more/day of beta-glucan soluble fiber from either whole oats, barley or a combination and seven grams or more/day of soluble fiber from psyllium seed husk (main ingredient in Metamucil). Soluble fiber dissolves in water and slows the movement of food through the body while insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and speeds the movement of food through the body. Both can reduce cholesterol in the body and the risk of diabetes, as well as other diseases.
Sugar and its many forms (corn syrup, turbinado, anything ending in “-ose”) has no nutritional value and is used to improve the flavor of foods. Some, like corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), have actually been found to cause disease and are detrimental to human health so much so the industry has decided to change its name to corn sugar to cause confusion and avoid any implications. Several diets have found success simply by limiting the intake of sugar.
Proteins are basically the building block of life consisting of one or more chains of amino acids and performing a variety of functions within all living organisms. Animals (including humans) must get some amino acids, called essential amino acids, from the diet while most plants and microorganisms can make all 20 standard amino acids. Protein plays a vital role in the diet but, again, too much is not good and can lead to problems (like kidney disease).
Vitamins and minerals are very important but only two of each are required on food labels: Vitamins A and C and the minerals calcium and iron. Companies can voluntarily list other vitamins and minerals, though. You should aim for 100% of these every day but keep in mind that the % Daily Value that is shown is based on a 2,000 calorie/day diet.
Guidelines for fat, carbohydrate and protein intake can vary from individual to individual according to their own medical/health conditions and goals. For instance, weight loss can be achieved by adjusting fat or carbohydrate intake, but knowing a person’s current health status and diet can make it that much more effective. If someone is on a very high carb diet, simply lowering their carb intake can show results.
For more specific guidelines, talk to your doctor and/or seek out the advice of someone, at least, certified in nutrition. A qualified individual can help set you out on the right path to achieve your goals without having to make it such a painful “diet,” but more a healthy, enjoyable meal plan that becomes a lifestyle.
– Anthony F. Ferrara