By Michelle M. Dillon, ND

  • Do you read food labels?
  • Do you understand the information that is provided?
  • Do you know how to apply the information to your food purchases

This article will highlight some of the history, benefit, and shortcomings of food labeling. It will alert you to the most useful and revealing elements in a food label in an effort to boost your food savvy and your health.

Research done by the American Journal of Nutrition reports that 4 out of 5 consumers read food labels. Eighty per cent (80%) of the label readers have ample incentive to be checking the nutrition of the products they are buying: they are overweight, or they have high blood pressure, or they have a family member who suffers from food allergies. Or they have a combination of these health concerns and more.

A brief history

Rudimentary food labels were developed as early as the 1800s by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to inform consumers and protect them from harmful substances. During World War II, a committee was formed to develop a set of recommendations specifying the standard daily allowance for each type of nutrient. These standards would be used to guide nutritional recommendations for the armed services, for civilians, and for overseas populations who might need food relief. In 1941, under the auspices of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) were formally established.

The working definition of RDAs is the “recommended dietary allowances that represent the amounts of essential nutrients considered adequate to meet the nutritional needs of most healthy persons in the United States.” They are revised every five to ten years. In the early 1950s, government nutritionists created a new set of guidelines that included the number of servings of each food group in order to make it easier for consumers to receive their RDAs of each nutrient.

Food label basics

Two general types of information appear on a food label. The Nutrition Facts section defines a serving size and describes the weights of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, protein) in a serving and the percentages that these macronutrients represent of the daily RDA for a 2000-calorie diet. Additional information is often provided for specific minerals, vitamins, or other components such as cholesterol. The second type of information is the List of Ingredients which contains, in order of decreasing weight, the basic components of the product.


Some quick indicators about the product you are considering

Can you identify and pronounce all of the ingredients on the label?
The healthiest packaged foods in general have a list of 3-5 ingredients and they are ingredients you recognize and can pronounce. If the list of ingredients looks more like an essay, steer clear. Package labels containing more than 10 ingredients (especially when some of the ingredients are not everyday nouns) indicate that the product is highly processed, chemically synthesized, and unnatural. If there are items on the label that you have to sound out or you have never heard of, do not eat it. Highly processed, man-made chemicals do not promote health.

Where is the desired ingredient on the list?
Since ingredients are listed from the most abundant to the least abundant, in descending order, look for healthy ingredients listed the earliest. If high fructose corn syrup or sugar is the first ingredient listed, you know that the product is mostly made from sugar, and delivers little nutritional benefit.

What are obvious ingredients to avoid?
High fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils are examples of highly processed ingredients that contribute to the development of disease. If you see these ingredients, put the product back on the shelf.

Is the serving size a typical portion?
Make sure the serving size defined on the label matches what you typically serve yourself. Many processed foods, especially junk foods, shrink their serving size so that its calories, fat content, and sugar content seem less junky.

Guidelines for examining specific nutrients

Study the fiber content
The average intake of fiber in the USA is a puny 6-8 grams a day. At least 30 grams of fiber are needed daily for good health. Fiber makes food more filling and promotes regularity while decreasing cholesterol levels as well as the risk of colon cancer. The more fiber a food has, the less carbohydrate is absorbed, and the lower the sugar or glycemic content. If there are between zero and 3 grams of fiber (per serving) in a product, return it to the shelf.

Study the carbohydrate content
All carbohydrates are not evil. It depends on where they come from, what they are made from, and if they are simple or complex. Most foods that are unprocessed, unpackaged, and plant-based are high in complexcarbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are high in fiber and healthy. Examples of complex carbohydrates are green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, Swiss chard, romaine lettuce, spinach, and kale.

Foods high in simple carbohydrates are those that have little to no fiber in them, are processed, packaged, and man-made. Examples of such foods are chips, crackers, cookies, pies, and breads. They are low in fiber and not healthy.

Calculate the net carbohydrates
To calculate the amount of carbohydrate your body is getting in a serving, subtract the amount of fiber from the amount of total carbohydrate. The net figure indicates the amount of carbohydrates that your body will have to metabolize. As mentioned earlier, fiber absorbs carbohydrates, thus the more fiber in a food, the greater the reduction in carbohydrates your body will have to metabolize. For example, if a slice of whole grain whole wheat bread has 20 grams of total carbohydrates and 3 grams of fiber, it has 17 grams of net carbohydrates. Compare that to a slice of white bread which has 25 grams of total carbohydrates and 0 grams of fiber, leaving the consumer with 25 grams of net carbohydrates to metabolize. Another term for net carbohydrates is “impact carbs.” These are the carbohydrates that will cause a rise in insulin, such as sugar, glucose, and corn syrup. Anyone who would like to lose weight or simply feel better should consume more fiber and fewer carbohydrates.

Look for the good fats
The good fats are the monosaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. The bad fats are the saturated and trans fats. If you tend to eat the food product frequently, or eat more than one serving at a time (which can be quite easy), you may be consuming a good deal of trans fats unwittingly. Check the ingredients list for any mention of hydrogenatedor partially hydrogenated oils, as these are trans fats and bad for your health. Note that food manufacturers can be sneaky. As long as the trans fat in a single serving is less than 0.5 grams a serving, the manufacturer can declare the food free of trans fat. That explains why individual servings of snack and junk foods are often tiny, so that the manufacturer can slip under the 0.5 grams restriction.

Examine the sodium content
If a food is processed, be assured it has sodium in it. Many packaged and frozen foods have extremely high amounts of sodium. Current guidelines suggest we consume less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day. This is about 1 teaspoon of table salt per day. It includes all salt and sodium consumed, including sodium used in processing or cooking as well as at the table. Many are surprised at how quickly the numbers can add up in the foods found in the supermarket: canned soup delivers as much as 950 milligrams per serving; frozen pizza, as much as 2,500 milligrams in a serving; canned peas, as much as 800 milligrams per serving. The epidemic of high blood pressure and heart disease in our society is not, alas, so surprising. We should, instead, consume about 10 times the amount of plant-based potassium than sodium, to help balance our sodium intake and benefit our health. Our potassium intake falls well short of that ratio; the ratio is almost reversed.

Beware of marketing schemes
The front of the label represents food marketing at its best. It is designed to tempt you into an emotional purchase and often contains empty, meaningless claims and trigger words that have no agreed upon meaning. For instance, “All Natural” and “100% Natural” are marketing terms unregulated by the FDA. One well-known yogurt producer emblazons its label with “No Artificial Anything.” The phrase is followed by the registered trademark symbol “®”. “No Artificial Anything” is actually a trademark registered in the U.S. Patent Office. A trademark can be placed on any product. Its purpose is to provide brand distinction and enhance commerce; it is not a nutritional validation or even a claim, although it may look like one.

In short, the marketing on the front can be checked by reading the label on the back of the package.

The healthiest approach

Here is the simplest guideline of all: If it has a label, it’s better not to eat it. Whole foods (unprocessed and untouched by man) promote health. Processed foods (foods that are manufactured, often high in sugar and bad fats) promote disease (and tend to contribute to weight gain). The more processed a food is, the fewer nutrients it contains. Packaged and commercialized foods resemble drugs: they are over-stimulating and addictive. As is sometimes the case with drugs, satisfaction decreases over time and we need more and more of the food to feel satisfied. Studies show that processed foods generate ever-increasing consumption. The eater hungers for nutrients, and since processed foods are light on genuine nutrition, the eater keeps eating until some level of satiety is reached. This behavior contributes to the high incidence of obesity in our population.

Here is a handy prompt when you are food shopping: Would your great-grandmother have served this food? Our great-grandmothers grew up in a time when everything was made from scratch and nothing was processed. It would be unthinkable to use a sauce from a jar or can for spaghetti; nor would they buy brownie dough and bake it in the oven (and certainly not in a microwave).

We need to be able to read food labels intelligently, for we are going to buy packaged foods to some degree. But we should remember that the best foods are those with no label at all.