Playing the Numbers Game

Believe it or not, nutrition information such as food labels (or Nutrition Facts labels) has only been required by food manufacturers since 1994, when the Food and Drug Administration passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. Though it was designed to help consumers, the legislation has left many people feeling confused, puzzled and even misled. Food labels should be more than just a federal requirement - consumers need to be able to understand the information they provide, in order to plan healthier meals and snacks.

Sometimes it's the tricky advertising, or catching the fine print, or doing some nutritional number crunching that results in the need to take second look at the label. There's so much information: fat, cholesterol, calories, sodium, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals. But what often gets overlooked is the serving size. This is one of the most important pieces of information because it affects all the nutrient amounts listed. And it is a perfect place to begin looking at nutrition labels.

Serving sizes are based on the amount of food people should typically eat, but may or may not be the serving amount you normally consume. Take, for example, a serving of premium brand, full-fat vanilla ice cream: on the Nutrition Facts label, a standard serving is listed as 1/2 cup, which provides approximately 270 calories, 18g of total fat, and 5g protein. Now ask yourself - who do you know who only eats 1/2 cup of ice cream? Many people likely indulge in at least a cup. And keep in mind that you would need to multiply the listed nutrients by the number of servings consumed to get the actual total amounts. For example, if you doubled the serving (2 x 1/2 cup = 1 cup), it would be necessary to multiply amounts for each nutrient by 2: 270 calories per serving now becomes 540 calories! (270 x 2). Reading and then visualizing the amount of the product's serving size should be standard for any purchasing decision. The best way to get accustomed to serving sizes is to measure them out at home: you will soon be able to "eyeball" the amount of food on your own when reading labels.

Another area of concern when it comes to interpreting food labels is understanding nutrient content claims. Such phrases as fat-free, low-calorie, reduced-fat, and cholesterol-free may appear obvious, but could actually be misleading. You would think that with the term "free" attached to a label, it would mean that a product contains no amount of the item mentioned. However, according to the law, "calorie-free" actually means fewer than 5 calories per serving. So in reality, a product can have 4 calories per serving, and the manufacturer can legally advertise the product as calorie-free. Take butter sprays, for example. Despite its being advertised as zero calories per serving, if you were to use 25 sprays to cover your potatoes, vegetables, or pasta (which is not a stretch considering a serving is 5 sprays), then you have actually just consumed 20, not zero, calories. This may not seem like a lot, but it does illustrate the importance of understanding the rules and numbers behind a food label.

Continuing on, if a product states that it is sugar or fat-free, then what it's really saying is that it provides less than 0.5 g of sugar or fat per serving. Some other claims to be conscious of:

  • low-fat: 3 g or less per serving
  • low-saturated fat: 1 g or less per serving
  • low-sodium: 140 mg or less per serving
  • very low sodium: 35 mg or less per serving
  • cholesterol-free: 2 mg or less and 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving
  • low-cholesterol: 20 mg or less and 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving
  • low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
  • trans-fat free: less than 0.5 g trans fat per serving
  • high-fiber: 5 g or more per serving

Manufacturers do not set out to deliberately deceive consumers, but they do use the laws to their advantage. Understanding the numbers game equips each consumer with the correct knowledge; knowledge in which they can confidently play the game themselves and win. And the reward of all this is accurately knowing what you are putting into your body - priceless. So remember, just as in life, nothing is ever truly free.




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What the letters mean...
  • V = vegetarian recipe
  • GF = gluten-free recipe
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