How To Decipher the Lingo

Food packaging and nutrition labels

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Almost every product on the market has a disclaimer in fine-line lingo, warning the wary consumer of danger, such as “plastic bags can suffocate if placed around head and knotted around neck,” or “hot coffee is hot.” 

But what about the information and warnings that affect the health of millions of consumers every day, like nutrition labels?  Sure, there are listed nutrients and those familiar daily values, but how exactly does each piece fit into the nutritional puzzle? 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration breaks down the food nutrition label into six parts.  The first section, at the top of the label, details the serving size and the number of servings per container, according to similar units like cups or grams.  In this respect, foods are thereby easier to compare when labeled according to standardized measurements. Note the serving size before interpreting all other data, though, as fat and other nutritional information might seem low and, therefore, healthy -- when in fact, the serving sizes divide the contents of the package into seconds or even thirds.

Calories per serving, the second part of the label, indicate the measurement of energy from a serving of food.  Weight gain occurs when more calories are consumed than burned, which can eventually contribute toward obesity.  The FDA attributes 40 calories as a low range, whereas 100 and 400 or more calories are moderate and high levels, respectively.

Section three:  the fat, cholesterol and sodium levels as noted on a nutrition label are to be consumed in moderation.  (Note the “less than” designation to the right of each category).  According to the American Heart Association, consumers shouldn’t exceed 7 percent of saturated fat per total caloric intake a day, while trans fat should remain under 1 percent.

On the other hand, fiber, vitamins, calcium and iron are listed so that consumers can take note of the nutrients to ingest more of, in an attempt to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, and so on.  There aren’t “less than” designations because there is no maximum level of these nutrients.  Part four of the label really should state, “The more, the better.” 

The footnote, piece five, at the bottom of the label, details the percent daily values (% Daily Value, or %DV), for a 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diet.  This section is the same on all labels, as the information is standard.  Sometimes, if a package is too small, the footnote will be omitted. 

Finally, the %DV, to the right hand of the column, indicates the level of each nutrient.  The percentages will not vertically add up to 100 percent; instead, each %DV is indicative of that nutrient only, based off of the ideal that one should consume 100 percent of that nutrient daily.  Five percent of a %DV is low, for both nutrients you want to eat in moderation and for nutrients you should consume in higher amounts, while 20 percent is on the other end of the spectrum and is high.  

Consumers should additionally pay attention to the %DV of calcium.  Calcium isn’t listed in specific units on the nutrition label but in percentages only.  Those looking for the recommended level of calcium should ingest 1,000 milligrams.  Women, including adolescent and post-menopausal, should exceed the recommended 100 percent of the %DV and aim for 120 to 130 percent, instead.

Nutrition labels aren’t the only information on food items of which consumers should take note.  Take a look at the entire package before the next time a purchase is made at the grocery store.  Be aware of the ingredient list on the packaging, which lists ingredients in order of weight and according to the heaviest.  Avoid foods, say, that list sugars as one of the first few ingredients.

Admittedly, the new ads for pretzel M&Ms have probably caught the eyes of most consumers with the promise of two for one in a poppable, candy shell: pretzels and, ah yes, chocolate.  Nab a 30-ounce package and the upper right corner of it reads, “party size.”  Out of curiosity, is that savvy wording to make the junk food snacker feel less guilty? Party size as compared to, say, jumbo size?

Then, turn the bag over, and the packaging will boast that is has 30 percent less fat “than the average of the leading chocolate brands*”.  Read underneath of the bold wording to discover that the leading chocolate brand totals 9 grams of fat per serving while pretzel M&Ms promises 6 grams.  Another popular sugar-rush satisfier is York dark chocolate-covered peppermint patties, which have 70 percent less fat than the leading chocolate candy brands (2.5 grams of fat per 34 grams versus the, again, 9 grams of fat). 

While the promise of reduced fat is alluring, don’t fall victim to the marketing ploys played oh-so-well by food manufacturers.  There is less fat, yes, but in comparison to other nutritionally and calorie-empty foods.  So there’s no need to chomp on extra pieces of chocolate; foods like this should still be eaten in minimal amounts.

Chocolate and other snack foods aren’t the only items playing the nutritional word game -- beverages are, too.  How so?  Drinks like fruit cocktails, fruit drink, fruit aid or other similar-labeled products that may display the term “fruit” are high in sugar or high fructose corn syrup.  Instead, opt for the 100 percent fruit juice on the grocery store shelves and make sure that the packaging clearly states its contents as being pure "juice."

So, in the case of health and food, maybe it’s not bad to read behind the fine lines.  While some may view nutritional labels as another unnecessary disclaimer, it may not be a waste of time to pause and absorb the information. 

After all, you are what you eat, after all.  

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