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Understanding Food Labels – What You May Not Know Will Harm You

Understanding food labels makes it easier to stay on track with your health and nutrition goals, but the information found on food labels can be confusing. To add to the confusion, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revised its rules for food labeling in 2016, giving manufacturers until July 2018 to comply with the rules. The current label is on the left, while the new label is on the right. As a consumer, you will likely see both of these food labels on packaged goods until July 2018. This handout walks you through the steps of reading both of these food labels.

 

Understanding Food Labels by Dr. Steven Rudack, Functional Medicine Practitioner
Understanding Food Labels by Dr. Steven Rudack, Functional Medicine Practitioner

 

1. This section of the food label contains information about the amount of food in the package. Labels indicate two things: the number of servings in the entire package, and the average serving size. Serving sizes are shown in two measurements: standard (cups) and metric (grams). In this example, the package contains 8 servings of food. One serving is equal to 2/3 cup, or 55 grams.

2. This section contains information about the number of calories in one serving of this food. Calories are units of energy generated by the food. Calories from fat are shown on old labels to indicate how much of the energy in each serving of food comes from fat.

3. Nutritional content is listed next. Figures are shown in grams for total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, and protein. Some of these nutrient categories have subcategories. Under fat, two categories are listed:

  • Saturated Fat: Saturated fat was once thought to be harmful, but current evidence suggests that it is not as bad as it is once seemed. Still, some people may want or need to limit their intake.
  • Trans Fat: Trans fats lead to insulin resistance, inflammation, belly fat accumulation, and increased risk of heart disease. These fats should be avoided. Note that a food label can list the trans-fat content as zero, as long as the amount of trans fat contained in one serving of the product is less than 0.5 g. To be sure a food is free of trans fat, look at the ingredient list. Trans fats are often listed as “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated” fats or oils.

Under total carbohydrates, two subcategories are listed:

  • Fiber: Fiber is a carbohydrate, but it can’t be broken down by the body. Because of this, fiber is usually subtracted from the total carbohydrate value to determine a food’s net carbohydrate value.
  • Total sugars (or sugars): Total sugars include both naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. The current label shows total sugar only, but the new label must show the amount of total sugar and disclose any added sugar in a given serving of food.

4. In the next nutrient subsection, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in the food are listed. The new food label shows the actual amount (in micrograms) of these vitamins and minerals, while the old label does not. Most old food labels list Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. The new labels list Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium. Vitamins A and C appear on the current label because deficiencies were common when the label was first created. Now those deficiencies are rare in the general population. Instead, Vitamin D and Potassium deficiencies are more common now. For all nutrients and micronutrients, the Percent Daily Value (DV) is shown to the right. DVs are an indication of how much that nutrient contributes to a day’s worth of food. All DVs are based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day.

Decoding Ingredient Lists

In the ingredients list of a food label, ingredients are listed in order of largest to smallest amounts. This means that the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the ingredients that weigh the least are listed last.

The ingredient list is particularly important if you have food allergies or sensitivities, as many packaged foods can have hidden sources of common allergens. The eight most common food allergens include eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat (gluten), and soy. These ingredients, and any ingredients derived from them, are required by U.S. law to be listed on all food labels. While they will be listed in the ingredients, they may also appear in a statement immediately after the list (e.g., “Contains wheat, milk, and soy”). The table below provides additional examples of how these foods might be listed in ingredient lists.

Food Allergen May be listed as, or may be the source of…
Eggs Albumin (or albumen), egg (dried, powdered, solids, white, yolk), eggnog, lysozyme, mayonnaise,
meringue (meringue powder), ovalbumin, surimi
Fish Fish meal, fish oil, fish sauce, surimi, specific species of fish (e.g., bass, cod, flounder, etc.)
Milk Buttermilk solids, casein, caseinate, galactose, hydrolysate, lactate, lactose, milk (dried, malted,
powdered, solids, etc.), quark, rennet, whey
Peanuts Arachic oil, beer nuts, cold-pressed, extruded or expelled peanut oil, earth nuts, hydrolyzed peanut
protein, mixed nuts, Nu nuts, nut pieces, nutmeat, peanut (butter, flour, paste, sauce, etc.)
Shellfish Barnacle, fish stock, seafood flavoring, surimi, specific type of crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, crawfish,
krill, lobster, prawns, or shrimp)
Soy Bean curd, edamame, hydrolyzed soy protein, kinako, miso, natto, okara, soy (albumin, concentrate,
fiber, grits, milk, miso, nuts, sauce, flour, etc.), soybeans, soy lecithin, tamari, tempeh, textured vegetable
protein, tofu
Tree Nuts Artificial flavoring, nut butters, nut meal, nutmeat, nut oil, nut pieces, any ingredient made with a
specific type of tree nut (e.g., almond, cashew, pecan, walnut, etc.)
Wheat (Gluten) Dextrin, maltodextrin, modified food starch, textured vegetable protein, specific strains of wheat (e.g.,
durum wheat, club wheat, spelt, semolina, Einkorn, emmer, kamut, and triticale)
(Note that “wheat-free” does not mean “gluten-free”, as “wheat-free” products may contain barley,
rye, or oats. If you are sensitive to gluten, be sure to avoid products containing barley, rye, and oats.)

Note that allergen-free packaged foods may still contain trace amounts if they are made on shared equipment. Some manufacturers include advisory statements on their products if they are made in a facility that also processes a major food allergen (e.g., “packaged in a plant that also processes wheat”). Regardless of the severity of your food allergies or sensitivities, always take care to read the ingredient list thoroughly so you don’t accidentally trigger an adverse food reaction.

The functional medicine approach to healthcare recognizes the important role nutrition plays in health. Years of consuming commercial and processed foods may contribute to the most commonly diagnosed illnesses in the United States and other westernized societies. Coronary heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, anxiety and depression are just a few illnesses related in part from poor food choices.

I hope this article helps with the choices you make when shopping for foods. Buying cheaper may cost you more in the long run. If the saying “you are what you eat” is true, are you fast and cheap ?

In following articles I will discuss the role of sugar and artificial sweeteners on our health.