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MED Labels are helpful, but they aren't too clear

Manufacturers must state what's in their product

Do you know what you're eating? Sure, foods in the natural state are straightforward -- a carrot is a carrot, an apple is an apple. Differentiating the contents of a box of Pop Tarts, however, becomes more dicey.

Identifying if there's any "real" food in a Pop Tart becomes blurred, particularly when the label lists ingredients within ingredients. Understanding the content of food labels is as challenging as deciphering the governmental ramblings on tax forms.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act arrived on the scene in 1990 to provide consumers with useful information about the foods they eat.

At a minimum, the act requires all food labels contain the following information:

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Common name of the product.

Name and address of the product's manufacturer.

Net content in terms of weight, measure or count.

The difficulty arises as one continues reading the text on the side of a package. Here are a few items to become familiar with:

Serving size: What constitutes one serving size must be identified. With America's girth problems and overestimation of portion sizes, this piece of information is important for tracking overall daily calories.

Nutritional facts: Each food product must identify the quantities of specified nutrient and food constituents for one serving, which is particularly useful when watching your fat intake. Remember the following values:

1 gram fat = 9 calories

1 gram protein = 4 calories

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1 gram carbohydrate = 4 calories

1 gram alcohol = 7 calories

Simple math provides the indisputable facts: fat packs a wallop with twice the amount of calories per gram as protein or carbohydrates. Based on the total calories for one serving, it's easy to calculate, for instance, the percentage of fat in a food product.

The "% Daily Values" section provides an estimate of the percentage total nutrients that one serving provides. For example, if you were consuming 2,000 calories per day, one serving of Golden Grahams cereal provides 120 total calories per serving (1 gram of fat and 25 grams of carbohydrate). Fat accounts for a mere 9 calories or 2 percent of the recommended day's allotment of fat and carbohydrates account for roughly 100 calories and 8 percent of the recommended day's allotment.

Ingredient list: The label lists ingredients from most to least abundant. For example, glance at the label of Wheatsworth crackers and one reads there's more white than whole-wheat flour. Not apparent from the information provided, however, is the fact that the crackers are only 11 percent whole wheat.

Besides an amazing amount of artificial ingredients, food manufacturers challenge the consumer to read them by using, for example, brown-on-brown text, all capitals, little, if any, spacing between words and a visual bombardment of graphics and colors.

The FDA also provides guidelines about the claims manufacturers may use in food labeling to promote their products.

Low fat: 3 grams or less of fat per serving.

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Less fat: 25 percent or less fat than the comparison food.

Low cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving.

Reduced calories: At least 25 percent fewer calories per serving than the comparison food.

Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.

Lean: Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 gm of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 9100gm) serving of meat, poultry or seafood.

Light (fat): 50 percent or less of the fat than in the comparison food.

Light (calorie): 1/3 fewer calories than the comparison food.

Ann Walker is a personal trainer and kinesiologist and has a master's degree in exercise physiology. You can reach her at lifestyle@postbulletin.com

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