First Things First on Reading Food Labels - What is a nutritional food label and who decides what’s on it?
Many countries have laws about the nutritional information consumers are entitled to see when buying packaged food. This is most often delivered by way of mandatory nutrition labels.
In the US, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDC Act) covers food and nutrition labeling for products sold in the US along with Nutrition Facts labels. The FDC Act is administered by the Food and Drug and Administration.
In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada administer food labeling through the Food and Drugs Act.
In the UK, several acts and levels of government apply including the European Union Food Laws and the regulations of the UK Food Standards Agency.
Here we will discuss the US situation including both reading food labels and understanding food labels. There are many similarities between the various countries’ rules.
While the FDA implements many food labeling regulations, the primary one concerning nutrition is the Nutrition Facts label attached to packaged food. Being able to read and understand food labels, including the Nutrition Facts, can go a long way towards enabling you to make better nutritional choices in what you buy and eat.
Nutrition Facts – The Basics of Reading Food Labels
The nutrition facts label identifies the types and amounts of key nutrients along with calories and the number and size of servings in a food.
The Purpose of Nutrition Facts on Food Labels - How Reading Food Labels Can Help you Make Better Nutrition Choices
The goal of Nutrition Facts is to
The Nutrition Facts highlight nutrients that consumers should limit or avoid, including
As well the Nutrition Facts labels identifies certain nutrients that consumers should make sure they include in their diet in sufficient amounts and which public authorities determine many Americans are deficient in, including
Total Carbohydrates in a serving are listed in the Nutrition Facts section of the Food Label too. Carbohydrates are further broken down between dietary fiber, as mentioned above, as well as sugars. Protein is also listed by both weight and with a % daily value, although few Americans are deficient in protein like they are in the above listed nutrients.
Currently, a manufacturer is not required to identify on the Nutrition Facts Label whether the sugar occurs naturally in the food or has been added in the manufacturing process. To figure this out the consumer would have to read the ingredients list and try to figure out which sugars have are added. High Fructose Corn syrup, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, maple sugar are examples of added sugars.
Healthy Choices through Reading Food Labels
Implicit in the idea of the Nutrition Facts, is that with enough of the right information, consumers will make healthier choices about what they eat and how much they eat of certain foods.
Other parts of the FDC Act that deal with additional nutrition labeling issues are as follows:
Who Should Be Reading Food Labels and Nutrition Facts
People interested in controlling their calories as part of a weight loss or weight management program and people suffering or at risk for specific health conditions affected by nutrition should read food labels and pay close attention to Nutrition Facts.
Some specific health conditions for which reading the Nutrition Facts Label may be useful are as follows:
The above is a smattering of health conditions where reading food labels and specifically the Nutrition Facts could be useful in managing or preventing the condition.
Reading Food Labels - What Nutrition Facts Show
2,000 Calories Per Day Diet - An important concept when Reading Food Labels
As mentioned, the Nutrition Facts Labels provide information based on a 2,000 per day calorie diet. A person’s daily requirements for calories may be higher or lower than 2,000 calories, depending on age, gender, height, weight and other factors, least of which are specific health conditions.
See the Calories in Food page to figure out how many calories you might need per day, depending on various factors.
If you consume more or less than 2,000 calories per day, your % Daily Value requirement for a nutrient in a particular serving of food will be slightly different than that listed on the nutrition facts label and you’ll have to make adjustments.
Foot Note on Nutrition Facts Footnotes If the label is big enough, you may see a foot note on the Nutrition Facts label listing recommended total daily intakes for certain nutrients. These include total daily intakes for fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate and dietary fiber. The label gives figures for both a 2,000 calorie per day diet and a 2,500 calorie diet. When reading food labels, you can use these figures to compare how much of a certain nutrient a particular food serving contains compared to the recommended daily intakes for that nutrient. The foot note lists the upper consumption limits, recommended by the government health authorities, for fats, cholesterol and sodium. Figures for carbs and dietary fiber are listed as recommended lower limits.
The Limitations on Recommended Daily Values –What to know when Reading Food Labels
Like calorie needs, recommended Daily Values are not tailored to individual requirement but are public health experts’ recommendations based on estimated average requirements for average individuals in a population. They are valuable figures and a basis from which to consider your own nutritional needs.
Some Individuals and groups may require more or less of a nutrient than the recommended Daily Value suggest.
If you have a specific health condition, it is best to talk with your health professional to figure out, if you should be modifying your diet above or below the government’s recommended Daily Values.
Regardless of individual health and nutrition needs, the Nutrition Facts labels provide important information about amounts and proportions of nutrients in a food that help you figure out what and how much of a food you should eat.
Important Factors When Reading Food Labels - Trans Fatty Acids
Since 2003, the FDA has required that Trans Fatty Acids be listed on Nutrition Facts Labels because of their established effect in raising Low Density Lipoprotein LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”) in the blood with its negative effect on coronary heart disease. There is also ongoing research suggesting that Trans Fats may play a role in Alzheimer's and other dementia, although the scientific jury is not in on this.
You’ll see that there is no recommended daily value listed for Trans Fats in the Nutrition Facts label. By contrast, government experts suggest you eliminate Trans Fats as much as possible from your diet.
Additional Considerations when reading food labels
Reading Nutrition Facts Food Labels – An exercise in comparison
As mentioned above, the advantage of standardized Nutrition Fact labels is that, when reading food labels, you can compare one similar food with another easily and quickly.
Below is an example of two milk labels contained on the FDA site that show the advantage of being able to compare standardized food labels – One label is for skim milk; the other for whole milk.
A quick comparison lets you see that, for the same size serving of milk (one cup-236 ml), the skim milk contains 80 calories and the whole milk 120.
You see that the differences between the two foods’ nutrient content are in the fat and cholesterol content. The skim milk contains zero grams of fat and cholesterol, making the skim the preferred choice, especially if counting calories or watching saturated fat and cholesterol intake are on the agenda. The other nutrients are the same.
If you want additional in-depth information on reading food labels and Nutrition Facts check out this 28 minute video produced for the FDA on making sense of food labels and the Nutrition Facts in particular. Click, here, if you want to read more from the FDA about reading food labels and Nutrition Facts.
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