So many of us are keeping a watchful eye on our sodium, fat, or calorie consumption. How do we know what we're eating? Is there a simple way to understand the contents of the food that we buy?The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed in 1990, requiring all packaged foods to display nutrition information. These labeling requirements have since undergone multiple amendments, and today, labeling is required for most prepared foods, including breads, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts, and drinks. Labeling for raw produce (fruits and vegetables) and fish is voluntary. The Nutrition Facts food labels list the percentages supplied based on an average 2,000-calorie (and sometimes 2,500 as well) a day diet. The Daily Values used were originally based on 1968 recommended dietary allowances for each nutrient for men and women of any age, and have been periodically revised to incorporate more current research. However, newer revisions are still necessary. Here's an example of the label that appears on most packaged foods: When evaluating the information on your nutrition labels, keep in mind that higher amounts for vitamins, fiber, and protein are good, but for saturated fats, cholesterol and sugars, lower numbers are more healthful. Remember that most Americans don't get sufficient amounts of dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets. How do grams relate to calories? Carbohydrates and protein contain about four calories per gram. Fat contains about nine calories per gram. So, if only grams are listed, multiply four or nine times the number of grams, and the result will be total calories. Pay special attention to the serving size and the number of servings information listed at the top of the label. All information on the rest of the label is based on a single serving. The serving size tells us the size of that single serving; for example, one serving of chicken noodle soup is considered to be 1/2 cup. This information can be very misleading, as a half-cup of soup (even after it is mixed with water) is not what many of us would picture as a full serving! Note that if a small package of cookies contains six cookies, but the serving size is just two, then the entire package contains triple the calories and other values listed. It is also important to note that one chicken soup serving is one-half cup of the condensed soup as it comes in the can, and not one-half cup of the soup after it has been mixed with water. Depending on the product, the serving size may be measured or counted before or after preparation. Here, the serving size is before preparation, and since the number of servings is 2.5, you can simply consider that regardless of the amount of water used when preparing the soup, if you consume the entire can, you have eaten two and one-half servings (and that doesn't include any crackers!). The middle portion of the Nutrition Facts food label contains information about calories, fat content, amount and type of carbohydrates, and amount of protein. It shows the amounts in grams (g) or milligrams (mg), and the percentage of the daily value (the amount recommended every day) for each of these nutrients. You will note that trans fats are listed without a percentage next to them. This is because experts have not agreed on a reference value for how much can be safely consumed. These fats raise blood LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, which increase the risk of heart disease. There is no reference value for sugar, either. Be aware that the sugars listed include both naturally occurring sugars (as in fruits), as well as processed sugars. Diabetics and others among us who are concerned about sugar intake should be certain that sugars are not listed as one of the first few ingredients. Processed sugars may appear as corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, and maple syrup. We also find sodium information located in this middle section, rather than with the other minerals down at the bottom of the label. You can see that only a single serving of condensed chicken noodle soup has 37% of the daily value for sodium. If you consume the entire can, you will have eaten almost the entire recommended amount of sodium for the whole day! Glance at the amount of fiber contained, and you may not be surprised to see that chicken noodle soup from a can contains very, very little. The bottom portion of the Nutrition Facts label displays the vitamin and mineral content. The FDA requires that information on calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C be included. Food manufacturers may add information about other vitamins like niacin or folic acid if the product contains any significant amounts. This bottom portion is not always present on smaller items, but it is a good reminder of our general needs, based on that 2,000 or 2,500 calorie per day diet. The information contained on these tiny labels is imperfect. It doesn't break down our dietary needs by gender, by age, or by particular health condition. It doesn't address conflicting research and current opinions in the nutrition and health care field. However, if your goal is to use this limited information as a guideline, then it can be a great tool to help find the foods that fit into a balanced and healthful diet. Read carefully, and eat smart! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: March 24, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 49