Do you read labels?

You can learn a lot about food just by reading the reams of information on the label. Most of us don't.

You can learn a lot about food just by reading the reams of information on the label, but many of us don't bother.

OK, confession time: I rarely scrutinize the labels on food packaging. Occasionally, I’ll glance at the Nutrition Facts label; I almost never look at the ingredient list.

That’s terrible, because given my background writing about food and nutrition, I know better. It turns out I’m not alone. According to Food & Drug Administration studies, in 2002 (the most recent numbers available) nearly 20% of all American consumers, and 30% of consumers under 35, “never” read food labels when purchasing products for the first time. That was up from 13% in 1994. Hmm, so as manufacturers were required to squeeze more information on labels, fewer customers were actually reading them.

The FDA wants to remedy that and is planning a voluntary consumer Internet survey to find out why people are so reluctant to use the information that’s available to them.

When it comes to items like bread, claims on the front of the package are often undermined by what’s revealed by the ingredient list.

So now I’m going to preach what I rarely practice. Your best bet to know what’s in your food is to examine Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list. The Nutrition Facts label offers basic info, like serving size, caloric, fiber, sodium, and other content. Keep in mind that “serving size” may not be an accurate reflection of what you’re likely to eat. For example, last night my mate picked up a 5-ounce bag of Kettle New York Cheddar with Herbs potato chips, to which we are addicted. Of course, the two of us plowed through the whole thing. In a case of forensic nutrition, I’m looking at the Nutrition Facts label right now, only to learn that the bag contains 5 (1-ounce) servings at 150 calories a pop. We each gobbled roughly 2 1/2 servings, or about 375 calories. Looks like I could use a Nutrition Anonymous support group (“Hi, I’m Alison A., and I don’t read Nutrition Facts labels until it’s too late…”).

Of course, the Nutrition Facts label is only part of the story. As Nourish Network founder Lia Huber points out, you have to read the ingredient list if you want to know what’s inside. As she notes, using bread as an example, claims on the front of the package are often undermined by what’s revealed in the ingredient list.

Yep, and it also helps to read the labels before you rip open the package to dig in.

Tasty links

Seems to be all about nutrition this week:

Picture 4Sodium patrol: Making salt saltier (so you eat less)–Little Stomaks




Picture 3Would-be urban gardener: I have the rooftop, but not the garden. Maybe this will inspire my not-so-green thumb.–The New York Times



Are Americans will to pay the cost of good nutrition? Eh, maybe, according to a new survey–

Some people won’t lose weight, even if you pay them. Or, at least, money ain’t a great weight-loss motivator.–Cornell University

Picture 9Beware the box: Lia Huber, founder of the Nourish Network, has a terrific weekly “Nibble to Noodle” newsletter in which she offers tidbits about nutrition, food, and good eats. Visit Lia’s site to sign up for her e-newsletter (with recipes!). This week, she tackles overblown nutrition claims found on packaged food claims:

I walked up and down the supermarket aisles last week with a keen eye towards what packages were promising and I found that, for the most part, the bolder a product proclaimed its virtues the less likely it was to be good for me. 
Take Reduced Fat Ritz Crackers, for instance. The green stripe at the bottom of the box draws my eye towards a sunny icon proclaiming the snack to be a “sensible solution.” They have half the fat of original Ritz, no cholesterol and little saturated fat; more than enough to convince a busy shopper to lob that box into their cart and feel good about it. But let’s take a closer look at those claims, shall we?
  • No Cholesterol and Low in Saturated Fat — These phrases typically appeal to those looking out for their cardiovascular health (and bravo to you for doing so!). Where it gets misleading is that dietary cholesterol has turned out to have much less effect on our bodies than previously thought; it’s the types of fat we consume, and their respective impact on LDL and HDL cholesterol, that matter. Saturated fat raises harmful LDL, but it also raises helpful HDL so the net effect isn’t too terribly awful. Trans fat–identified either by gram in the nutritional panel or by the term partially hydrogenated in the ingredients list–is by far the worst type of fat because it both raises LDL and lowers HDL. So let’s flip the box over and see what’s there. The nutritional panel lists trans fat at 0 grams, but because a product can contain up to .5 grams of trans fat and still list the amount at 0, I like to double-check the ingredients list for partially-hydrogenated oils. And there, right in the middle of the list, is partially-hydrogenated cottonseed oil. So much for those benefits.  

  • Half the Fat — True, at 2 grams per serving these Ritzes contain half the fat of normal Ritzes which weigh in at 4 grams. But what does that really tell us? If we’re concerned about the fat itself, we already know that these are made with a less-than-ideal type. And if we’re equating fat grams with whether or not the crackers will make us fat, we’re looking in the wrong place. Calories (or more specifically, an excess of calories) cause weight gain, not total fat grams. These Reduced Fat Ritz have 70 calories per serving–not bad, until you consider that a serving is only 5 crackers. Up that to a more realistic 10 and you’re looking at 140 calories, roughly seven percent of an average daily “calorie budget” of 2,000.

So here you have a snack with virtually no value for your body that gobbles up close to a tenth of your allotted calories for the day and includes a downright dangerous type of fat. This is a sensible solution? For whom . . . us or Nabisco?