Understanding Food Labels

Once upon a time, the only reliable consumer information on a food label was the name of the food inside. The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act changed that forever with a spiffy new set of consumer-friendly food labels that include:

  • A mini-nutrition guide that shows the food’s nutrient content and evaluates its place in a balanced diet.
  • Accurate ingredient listings, with all ingredients listed in order of their weight in the food; for example, the most prominent ingredient in a loaf of bread would be flour.
  • Clear identification of ingredients previously listed simply as colorings and sweeteners.
  • Scientifically reliable information about the relationship between specific foods and specific chronic health. conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.

The Nutrition Facts label is required by law for more than 90 percent of all processed, packaged foods, everything from canned soup to fresh pasteurized orange juice. Food sold in really small packages — a pack of gum, for example — can omit the nutrition label but must carry a telephone number or address so that an inquisitive consumer (you) can call or write for the information.

Just about the only processed foods exempted from the nutrition labeling regulations are those with no appreciable amounts of nutrients or those whose content varies from batch to batch:

  • Plain (unflavored) coffee and tea.
  • Some spices and flavorings.
  • Deli and bakery items prepared fresh in the store where they’re sold directly to the consumer, as well as food produced by small companies.
  • Food sold in restaurants, unless it makes a nutrition content or health claim.

Labels are voluntary for fresh raw meat, fish, or poultry and fresh fruits and vegetables, but many markets — perhaps under pressure from customers (Hint! Hint!) — put posters or brochures with generic nutrition information near the meat counter or produce bins.

The star of the Nutrition Facts label is the Nutrition Facts panel on the back (or side) of the package. This panel features three important elements: serving sizes, amounts of nutrients per serving, and Percent Daily Value.

Serving Size - No need to stretch your brain trying to translate gram-servings or ounceservings into real servings. This label does it for you, listing the servings in comprehensible kitchen terms such as one cup or one waffle or two pieces or one teaspoon. It also tells you how many servings are in the package. The serving size is exactly the same for all products in a category.

In other words, the Nutrition Facts chart enables you to compare at a glance the nutrient content for two different brands of yogurt, cheddar cheese, string beans, soft drinks, and so on. When checking the labels, you may think the suggested serving sizes seem small (especially with so-called low-fat items). Think of these serving sizes as useful guides.

Amount Per Serving - The Nutrition Facts chart tells you the amount (per serving) for several important factors:

Percent Daily Value - The Percent Daily Value enables you to judge whether a specific food is high, medium, or low in fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugar, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.

The Percent Daily Value for vitamins and minerals is based on a set of recommendations called the Reference Daily Intakes (RDI), which are similar (but not identical) to the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for vitamins and minerals. RDIs are based on allowances set in 1973, so some RDIs now may not apply to all groups of people.

For example, the Daily Value for calcium is 1,000 milligrams, but many studies — and two National Institutes of Health Conferences — suggest that postmenopausal women who are not using hormone replacement therapy need to consume 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day to reduce their risk of osteoporosis.

The Percent Daily Values for fats, carbohydrates, protein, sodium, and potassium are based on the Daily Reference Values (DRV). DRVs are standards for nutrients, such as fat and fiber, known to raise or lower the risk of certain health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.

For example, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 says that no more than 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fat. That means a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet shouldn’t have any more than 600 calories from fat. To translate fat calories to grams of fat (the units used in the DRVs), divide the number of calories from fat (600) by 9 (the number of calories in one gram of fat).

The answer, 67, is slightly higher than the actual DRV. But it’s close enough. For more about the evolving state of dietary recommendations. And — dare I say it? — your daily paper. Boy, is nutrition ever a work-in-progress! Nutritionists use similar calculations to set the DRVs, such as:

  • Saturated fat — 10 percent of your calories/9 calories per gram
  • Carbohydrates — 60 percent of your calories/4 calories per gram
  • Dietary fiber — 11.5 percent of your calories/0 calories per gram
  • Protein — 10 percent of your calories/4 calories per gram

Having set down this tidy list, I’m now compelled to tell you that the %DV (that’s short for Percent Daily Value), as shown on the Nutrition Facts labels, are behind the times. New recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 say:

  • Total fat calories should account for 20 to 35 percent of total daily calories.
  • No safe level exists for saturated fats or trans fats, thus no %DV is provided for either one. The total amount of saturated fat in the portion is the number of grams of sat fat plus the number of grams of trans fat. (Who else would tell you these things?)
  • Calories from carbs should account for 45 to 65 percent of daily calories.
  • Women younger than 50 need to consume 25 grams of dietary fiber a day; men younger than 50, 38 grams. After age 51, it’s 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men.
  • Calories from protein should account for 10 to 35 percent of total daily calories, an amount much higher than the current RDA for protein.

Will this change the numbers on the Nutrition Facts labels? The sensible answer is, sure it will . . . eventually. Are the current Nutrition Facts labels still useful? Absolutely.