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Food Nutrition Labels: Decoding the food we eat

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In this case, the numbers tell a surprising story. Though a recent national survey determined that 80 percent of families in this country did not buy or read a book in the past year, the percentage of people who reported checking nutrition facts labels on foods is on the rise.

According to its most recent survey in 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that more than 50 percent of those interviewed ― a 23 percent increase in six years ― indicated that they frequently check labels to determine whether they should buy or avoid certain foods.

Furthermore, 91 percent of the interviewees said they understand the link between diet and heart disease and 62 percent pointed a guilty finger at trans fat as one of the culprits for the disease.

Nutrition Facts Labels were mandated by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Food manufacturers are required to show the facts of the nutrition of their products and include serving size, calories, nutrients and percent daily values of those nutrients. The law applies to all packaged foods and beverages, excluding meat, poultry, fish and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Since 1994, two changes to the law have occurred. Effective, January 1, 2006 ― thanks to researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health ― the number of grams of trans fat was added, and as of January 1, 2012, meat and poultry must comply with labeling guidelines.

The food labels are a boon to consumers ― if they pay attention and interpret them correctly. “The food label gives consumers the power to compare foods quickly and easily so they can judge for themselves which products best fit their dietary needs,” explained Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D, the director of the FDA’s Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements.

Stephanie Spaide, the director of the outpatient services in the Nutrition and Weight Management Center of Boston Medical Center, agrees. “They [food labels] give people the ability to identify what they are putting in their body,” she said. “It helps to understand what’s good to eat or what to avoid.”

In addition, she explained, the labels allow a person to compare products. For instance, if one container of yogurt contains 80 calories and another 240 calories, “there’s a lot of something in that higher container,” she said.

Spaide recommends a simple and practical approach to mastering nutrition labels. “Start out with the one thing you’re focusing on.” Some may be concerned about calories, while others are trying to increase their calcium intake. “Pick one thing and start at ground zero,” she recommended.

High blood pressure is a case in point. People prone to high blood pressure should choose foods that are lower in sodium, which takes some doing given the high salt content in several foods, such as soups, salad dressings and frozen meals. “Foods that contain 400 milligrams (mg) or more of sodium per serving have a high sodium content,” said Spaide.

The nutrition facts are listed on the side or back of the packaging. Key to understanding the labels is serving size, which is typically measured in cups, grams or number of pieces. The serving size dictates the rest of the nutrition facts. For instance, if a person consumes two cups ― or twice the serving size ― the rest of the nutrition information is doubled as well.

That means if 150 of the calories come from fat in a single serving, 300 of the calories come from fat in two servings ― a significant factor for those on a restricted fat diet.

Serving sizes can be a bit tricky and are usually much smaller than one estimates. A serving size of ice cream is half a cup – not the heaping bowl people are more prone to dole out. A portion of bran muffin can be one-third of the muffin – a mere bite for some. Yet, eating the entire muffin may result in consuming 30 percent of a person’s total daily calories.

Container size can be deceiving as well. A small bag of chips, which averages about 2 ounces, often contains two servings. Many interpret the small size to be an individual portion. Only the label will tell.

Calories count. Eating too many calories a day is one of the leading causes of overweight and obesity, but there’s a trick to understanding if the food is high or low caloric. Products that contain 40 calories or less per serving are considered low in calories. Serving sizes of 100 calories are considered moderate, while those containing 400 calories or more are deemed high. 

Certain nutrients – fat, cholesterol and sodium – should be limited in consumption, but the nutrition labels do not indicate this.  The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting total fat each day to about 30 percent of total calories and saturated fats to 7 percent of total calories. Cholesterol intake should not exceed 200 mg.― particularly for people with cardiovascular disease. Currently, no upper limit of trans fat has been determined. Most health providers recommend abstaining completely.

Too much sodium can be harmful to those with hypertension, heart disease or stroke. The AHA suggests a limit of 2,300 mg a day – about a teaspoon of salt. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a daily maximum of 1,500 mg of salt for those with high blood pressure, those over 40 and all African American adults. Labels do not reflect this measurement, forcing consumers to do the math.

Some nutrients, on the other hand, are highly recommended. Experts recommend at least 25 grams of dietary fiber each day. Fiber is the undigested part of plant foods and helps regulate the gastrointestinal tract. Serving sizes of five grams or more of fiber are considered high in fiber, while good sources of fiber contain 2.5 to 4.9 grams.

In addition to fiber, vitamins, proteins and calcium are recommended in varying quantity based on age and gender.

Percent Daily Values describe how much or how little the nutrients contribute to each serving. There’s a catch though. The values are based on a 2,000- calorie a day diet and require adjustment to accommodate each person’s individual daily calorie intake.

Some nutrients, such as cholesterol and sodium, remain unchanged in their percent daily values regardless of calories, while total fat and vitamins and minerals vary. As an example, if the product lists that the serving contains 30 percent of the daily value of total fat, it means that each serving contains roughly 20 grams of fat. Two servings of the product would bring the percentage to 60 percent and 40 grams of fat. That also means that the remainder of the food you consume that day should not exceed 24 grams of total fat to meet the recommendation of less than 65 grams each day .

There is a simple rule of thumb to use whether you are trying to limit or increase nutrients. A serving that contains five percent or less of the nutrient is considered low ― a good thing for sodium; 20 percent or greater is high – a desirable reading for calcium.

People tend to overlook beverages, which are subject to nutrition facts as well. It’s almost as though calories don’t count if they are drunk instead of eaten. It’s often assumed that juices can be consumed without caution. “Drinking too much juice is not a good thing,” Spaide said. “It is 100 percent natural and can be a good source of vitamin C, but it is still high in calories.” She also explained that the popularity of sports drinks doesn’t make them healthier alternatives. “You don’t need a sports drink to hydrate,” she said, acknowledging that water will do just fine.

Think about it. “If you drink a 250-calorie drink each day that results in 25 pounds a year,” she said.

Spaide recognizes that people can become too zealous in their approach to healthy eating.  “Too much of a good thing is not always good,” she said. “Calories still count,” she warns.