Nutrition options require understanding the food labels
If you’re like millions of Americans, you probably ignore the food label when buying groceries. Most of us rely on labels provided by the manufacturer to determine what’s in our food. We rely on the word “organic” to indicate that it meets the strict regulations set forth by the US Food & Drug Administration. We know the meat we buy is free from drugs and hormones, but are we really sure what else is in our food? There is more than meets the eye at the food label.
Labels have proven to be ineffective when it comes to exposing the truth about food products. Over 85% of processed foods on the market contain one or more additives, making it nearly impossible to read a food label and make an informed decision about what you’re eating. For example, it is shocking that potato chips have as many preservatives and additives as regular potato chips. These additives may be listed on the ingredient list, but consumers are not able to identify them on their own.
An ingredient list can’t tell you the health claims made about food. In order to understand what health claims are made, you have to look at the nutrition facts panel. The nutrition facts panel will list all of the ingredients found in the product, along with their percentage in the total protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals. You will also see a number, usually numbering zero, that indicates the frequency of the ingredient being used.
Let’s look at an ingredient list for a particular food. Let’s say it contains 2 teaspoons of artificial flavor, aspartame, a high calorie sweetener, and two teaspoons of sugar. This food label will give you important nutrition information, such as the daily serving size for carbohydrates, fats, proteins and the amount of sodium in the serving. However, the nutrition facts don’t tell you how much of each nutrient is in the serving or what the serving size is.
If the food label lists healthy ingredients, it doesn’t necessarily mean the manufacturer has stated that the product is healthy. A health claim means the food contains a statement or advice regarding its safety, either by the U.S. Department of Health or the European Union. For example, a health claim could read: “This product provides moderate protection against trans fat”. The European Union health warnings state that the ingredient contains trans fats.
Other nutrient information must meet strict guidelines published by the National Health and Nutritional Association. All nutrients must be declared, even if they are naturally occurring. The only exception to this is for low-fat and low-calorie products. Only if the product is low in calories and contains no hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, stabilizers, colorants, salt, added starches, processed foods or added sweeteners does it meet the low-fat, low-calorie standard.
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Nutrient information must also be broken down by nutritional classifications. The Nutrition Facts panel on the front of the package usually provides the classification of nutrients used by the company. This information can be confusing, as foods can be grouped according to their nutritional value, but nutrients can be described in terms of percentages. This means that the food might be classified as a protein source, a vegetable source, a fruit source or an animal source, but can be listed as one of several classes.
Finally, nutrient information must be colour-coded. All major food manufacturers must use a colour-coded label to indicate what nutrient is provided. The benefit of the colour-coding system is that it enables consumers to make healthy choices. Red apples have nearly twice the antioxidant concentration of blueberries, and spinach is richer in antioxidants than heart-shaped carrots. Labels need to provide enough detail to enable consumers to select the right product, but be aware that some nutrient content is not required and some nutrients are not beneficial.
Dietitian and Wellness Coach. I deal with Care and Prevention of the field of nutrition and sports.