The back of the box.

Posted on July 25, 2011

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I know it’s been a while since I posted the first part of my series on food labeling, but I’ve been distracted by gardening.  So here, at long last, is the second part of the series:

The information on food packaging can vary from confusing and misleading to helpful and informative, but no matter what a company’s market strategy, there is one consistent guide to the truth about your lunch: The Nutrition Facts.  The nutrition information found on the back, side, or bottom of your packaged food is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are strict guidelines for every part of the label,
including the font that can be used. The basic layout of the chart will be the same, regardless of package size, though larger packages may also include a more detailed breakdown of a 2,000-2,500 calorie per day diet. The daily values on each label are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. You may need to consume more or less based on your age, sex, body size, and activity level.

The most important piece of information on the label is probably the serving size and the number of servings per container. Located right below the words “Nutrition Facts,” the serving size helps put all the other information on the label in perspective. Think about how much of a food you typically eat, and then compare it to the serving size.  You might be surprised to learn how large a difference there is between the two amounts. If you typically eat a cup and the serving size is only a half cup you will need to double all the information on the label to understand exactly how much salt, sugar, and fat you are really getting from your food.  (Tip: If you have trouble stopping after one serving try measuring out a single serving into a bowl. Put the rest of the package away before you begin eating.)

If you look to the right of the serving size you will see that it is also listed in grams. While most of us aren’t going to weigh out a serving of potato chips this information can come in handy, especially when comparing two different products. A one-cup serving of cheerios weighs 28 grams. A one cup serving of spoon size shredded wheat weighs 49 grams. That’s a pretty big variation, and it can help put nutritional differences between the two cereals into perspective.

The next piece of information is the number of calories in a serving.  (Calories indicate how much energy you are getting from a serving of food.) This is further broken down to show how many of those calories come from fat, what types of fat they come from, and what percentage of your daily recommended intake those calories constitute. Remember, the percentage listed is not telling you what percent of your food is made up of fat. It is telling you how much of the total amount of fat (100% or about 65g) that you should consume over the course of one day is in one serving. The FDA considers 40 calories per serving to be low, 100 to be average, and 400 or more to be high.

After calories you’ll find cholesterol and sodium. The FDA states that (ideally) your total intake of fat, cholesterol, and sodium should add up to less than 100% of the recommended Daily Value (DV).  That is, you are probably getting enough of these nutrients and need to know how much a product contains so you can avoid overdoing it. The recommended DV for carbohydrates and fiber are the opposite. The FDA recommends you get at least 100% of the DV for these ingredients. Generally 5% or less is considered to be a low amount for any nutrient and 20% or more is
considered high. Don’t forget, if you eat two servings you need to double those percentages!

Some of the items listed on the nutrition facts do not have a recommended DV. This is because there is no concrete scientific evidence as to what constitutes a healthy average amount. Sugar, protein, and trans fats fall into this category. Many companies have begun to cut trans fats from their recipes since New York banned their use in restaurants in 2006. Until more conclusive studies are done, it may be best to limit your intake of trans fats as much as possible since they have been linked to an increase in heart disease.  The amount of sugar and protein you need varies with personal health and weight concerns. Your Health Care Provider or qualified Nutritionist should be able to help you work out this number.

The last thing on the table will be a breakdown of the vitamins and minerals contained in your food. These numbers, like those for fiber and
carbohydrates, indicate that you should get at least 100% of the DV.  “Vitamin Fortified” foods may contain much higher levels of one nutrient than another as they are added back into the product after processing.

Finally, right below the nutrition information, you will see a list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed by weight, with the first item on the list being heaviest. So if the first ingredient on the list is High Fructose Corn Syrup there is more of that in your food than anything else. The lower something is on the list, the less of it there is in your breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Nutrition labels are important. Just a quick glance at the serving size can help you make healthier food choices. For an easy first step try revisiting your childhood and read the back of the cereal box!

Tip: Whole foods don’t have a nutrition label or list of ingredients, so you might have to do a little research. Try this for a comprehensive guide to the nutrients in your food, check out the FDA Labeling Guide, or figure out your daily intake with this Calorie Calculator.

This article was first written for the GreenTree Co-op Newsletter.

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Posted in: Labels