What’s in a Name: Reading Food Labels

By Leah – November 4, 2011

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series on healthy food choices. Our goal is to help decipher some of the marketing language and tricks used to promote a food as “healthy” as well as demystify both new and established tenets of healthy eating. Paired with each article in the series is a healthy revision of a well-known (and not-so-healthy) dish—a Recipe Redux.

Walk into any grocery store, pick up a packaged item, and there it is: the nutrition facts label. Do you read it? More importantly, should you take the time to read it?

The nutrition facts label was born in 1990 as part of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). Prior to that, information on packaged foods was basically designed to protect consumers from getting hurt in some fashion. The first laws in the United States were passed in 1906 to keep people from transporting food and drink that had been “adulterated” with other products or mislabeled. It wasn’t until 1950 that labeling began to focus more on what made up a product, and we have oleo (margarine) to thank. The Oleomargarine Act of 1950 required prominent labeling of the color added to oleo so it could be distinguished from butter; otherwise, shoppers couldn’t really tell one from another. In 1962, President Kennedy followed with the “Consumer Bill of Rights,” which outlined that consumers had, among others, the right to safety, information, and choice. So, in 1990, conditions were ripe for NLEA, which required regulated and defined nutrition labels on all packaged foods. Fast forward to 2011, and the nutrition facts label is relatively unchanged.

“Tell me…what do you look at when you read the nutritional label?” asked Meredith Terranova, local area ultrarunner and owner of a nutritional consulting service, Eating and Living Healthy, LLC (one of Austin Fit Magazines’ 2011 “Best Nutritionist” finalists). Terranova believes strongly in using food labels as a tool to make informed eating decisions (so much so that she teaches a class for her clients on reading nutrition facts labels), and she prefers to simplify the information found there by honing in on two items, sodium (salt) and fat. Her reasoning? “The more sodium, the less natural and more processed the food is,” she explains. Further, she says, “If the item is high in fat, then it’s high in calories, too.”

From there, Terranova proceeds to check out the ingredients list, found at the bottom of the label. “Take a look at the first three items,” she says. Because ingredients are listed in order from highest amount to lowest, the first three things make up the bulk of the product. “If it sounds like a science experiment or you need a chemistry degree to recognize those first three items, put it down,” she cautions. It’s important to know what is going into your body, and most of us don’t recognize the various chemicals and additives that are part of today’s packaged foods. For example, one of Terranova’s issues with high fructose corn syrup is that it’s simply one way to list sugar; many food labels that show high fructose corn syrup towards the front of the ingredient list will also have more sugar listed by other names in lesser amounts further down the list.

Reading the nutrition facts label should empower eaters to make the best decisions, and Terranova points out that reasons for eating a particular food can help determine which product may be a better choice. One of her favorite examples is a comparison between an organic bar, Bobo’s Chocolate Oat Bars and a candy bar, 3 Musketeers Bars. Flip over each and take a look at the label, first targeting fat and sodium. The Bobo bar has 6 grams of fat while the candy bar has 8 grams; the Bobo bar contains 20 mg of sodium compared to 110 mg in the 3 Musketeers Bar. However, a quick look at the serving size reveals the 2.13-ounce candy bar is 1 serving, whereas the Chocolate Oat bar is actually 2 1.50-ounce servings, which means those previous oat bar numbers need to be doubled in order for this to become a direct comparison. Skipping down to the ingredients lists, the Bobo bar lists organic rolled oats, organic brown rice syrup, and Earth Balance (a mix of soy, palm, canola, and olive oil) first, while the candy bar lists milk chocolate, sugar, and corn syrup as its top three. Which do you eat? If your goal is to have a dessert that satisfies your sweet tooth, you’re actually better off choosing the 3 Musketeers Bar as you get more bites for fewer calories (260 for the bigger bar; 180 for the 1.5-oz oat bar single serving or 360 for the equivalent size). However, the smaller, denser Bobo’s Chocolate Oat Bar might stick to your ribs longer, provide less of a “sugar rush,” and be the healthier option for a snack that bridges the gap between meals.

Another area where nutritional labels act as a helpful tool is in learning portion size, which is shown in the first line of the label. Many Americans have a hard time with what is actually an appropriate serving size; breakfast cereal is a great example. What most people actually pour into their bowls differs greatly from the stated portion size. Terranova recommends taking your favorite cereal, pouring it into a sealable container, checking the box for serving size, and then putting the appropriately sized scoop with your cereal so that you actual eat the recommended amount without having to think about it.

Terranova points out that Grandma’s Thanksgiving gravy recipe can even get a nutritional breakdown. There are several free, online recipe analysis services for home cooks (see NutritionData and SparkRecipes to start) in case you’d like to know the nutritional composition of family favorites. If you’ve created a food product you’d like to market, then the FDA requires a nutrition facts label, and, for a fee, companies such as Compu-Food Analysis, Inc., can provide those services while following FDA guidelines and meeting legal requirements.

“Nutritional labels are all about helping people make educated choices about their food,” Terranova said. Whatever your purpose—to lose weight, eat less processed food, watch for allergens, or limit unwanted additives—nutritional labels are an important tool that can help you achieve your goal. So plan to do some reading along with your grocery shopping!

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