Food Nutrition Labels: Decoding the food we eat
3/6/2012, 10:53 a.m.
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.