Truth in Labeling
by Diane Stanton
June 14, 2004
Do you or don't you read food
labels when you shop? If you don't, you're missing out on a
prime source of information about your meals. If you want
control of your health, focus on package labels and pick
your foods carefully.
The large print on food labels focus on what are called
macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat and protein. Some of the
smaller categories convey information about vitamins, fiber,
and minerals, as well as the totals of fat and saturated fat
contained in food. So, you have no excuse for claiming
ignorance about your diet: the truth is in the labels.
Food labels can be confusing to the uninitiated. Go into a
big food store and you can be faced with what seems to be a
forest of food information: more than 15,000 labels. Add to
that fact that every year more than 30,000 new food products
can be introduced to the marketplace, and what you're faced
with is a jungle of food labels.
That overwhelming wealth of food label information doesn't
mean you should throw up your hands in dismay and give up
reading and deciphering labels. You should arm yourself
against that sea of labels with knowledge and, by
understanding them, end your confusion and build your
A hundred years or so ago, food labels were only required to
list the name of the food contained inside the package. The
contents, quality and processes used to make the food were
often a mystery. Little or no disclosure to consumers was
made about how their food was created.
By the early 1920s, the federal government, via the Food and
Drug Administration (FDA), began requiring food companies to
list the net weight of food on labels as well as the names
and addresses of food processors and distributors. Finally,
by the 1970s, listing basic nutritional information was
mandated in a uniform way so that shoppers could have some
basis for comparing foods.
Then, in 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act made
major alterations to the kinds of labels that had to be
included on food packages.
The FDA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) required
significant changes to food labels that were supposed to
make it easier for consumers to eat healthier diets. The
labels requirements of 1994 included five major changes:
• The nutrition information on the label had to be printed
in larger, more legible type.
• This condensed information had to be on the back or side
of food packaging and titled as "Nutrition Facts." This type
of information is also shown in grocery stores near the
fresh food displays of fish, fruits and vegetables.
• The label had to include a column of information tagged as
the "% Daily Value," designed to help consumers understand
how the food could fit into a healthy diet.
• Each label had to include information about fat,
cholesterol, fiber, sugar, calories from fat, and other
information relevant to designing a healthy diet.
• The computed serving sizes were supposed to be more
realistic and reflect the amount of food people actually eat
at one sitting.
Consumer questions regarding food labels have led
researchers to look into ways to help shoppers comprehend
what food labels tell them. These studies are designed to
help consumers match up their nutrition requirements with
the foods they buy.
For instance, at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, scientists have devised a label tool
called See It, Do It, Teach It to help people improve their
diets through comprehension of food label information. " One
of the goals of the project was to help...teenaged girls and
menopausal women understand how they can get the daily
requirement for calcium into their diet in order to help
prevent osteoporosis," says Karen Chapman-Novakofski, PhD,
associate professor and nutritionist in the school's College
of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
According to the See It, Do It, Teach It program, you should
think of food labels as consisting of two sections:
• Food items you should limit: total fat, saturated fat,
cholesterol, sodium and, if you're eating a low-carb diet,
• What you may need to increase: vitamin A, vitamin C,
calcium and iron
" Much more attention has been paid to what people should
limit rather than the nutrients needed. The average consumer
doesn't know, for instance, how much vitamin A 10% of the
Daily Value is, or how much calcium 25% of the Daily Value
is," Dr. Chapman-Novakofski says.
Upping Calcium Intake
In their eight-week study of people's calcium consumption
(Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 4/04), the
University of Illinois research team found that people
didn't know how much calcium was in the food they ate.
After the initial part of the study, in which participants
were shown how to look for calcium on labels, "the post-test
revealed that the participants significantly increased their
calcium intake to 821 mg per day, up from 372 mg per day,"
notes Dr. Chapman-Novakofski.
" That's a lot closer to the daily requirements of 1,200 mg
per day for men and women over 50, 1,000 mg for men and
women aged 19 through 50 and 1,300 mg per day for [youths
aged] 9 to  years," she adds.
Parts of the Label
The first item at the top of a nutrition food label tells
you the portion size that the label measures. An important
point to remember: these sizes are determined individually
by each manufacturer. Consequently, all of the other values
on the label are measured per portion.
So, if you are comparing foods made by two different
companies that employ very different portion sizes in their
nutritional calculations, your label comparisons may be
Another fact to be aware of: the listed portion size may be
an odd division of the food within the container and not
reflect a common-sense division. For instance, some food
packages are labeled as containing 2.5 portions.
And, to make things even more interesting, small boxes of
candy that you might think contain barely enough for one
helping may be labeled by the manufacturer as having two or
more portions. As a result, if you eat the whole box, you
often have to at least double the number of indicated
calories, etc. to figure out the nutrients and calories you
The section of the label that notes calories, calories from
fat and percent daily values is listed under the portion
size. Here you are told how many calories you consume when
you devour one portion and how many of those calories are
derived from fat.
This label focus on fat originated when consumers and
dietitians were very concerned about Americans' fat
consumption and hadn't yet switched their focus to
carbohydrate consumption as a prevalent dietary health
Also included on the label: the daily value percentages
aimed at showing you how much out of a total day's intake of
various nutrients a portion bestows upon you.
These percentage numbers are based on a theoretical analysis
of a diet that contains 2,000 or 2,500 calories a day. (A
notation at the bottom of the label tells you whether the
calculation is based on 2,000 or 2,500.)
If you've been eating a low-carb diet (or are planning this
type of diet), the section of the label that lists
carbohydrates may be especially useful. Under this heading,
the label lists the totals for fiber and sugar.
No matter what diet you are on, dietary fiber is desirable,
since it represents indigestible carbohydrates that both
pass through you without conveying any calories and keep
beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract healthy.
Most people want to limit their sugar totals, however, since
this nutrient may raise your risk of being overweight and,
when you eat a lot of it, may contribute to immune problems.
Interestingly enough, when food chemists compute what is in
food, they perform lab tests known as assays to distinguish
its ingredients. (The manner in which these tests are
performed are very strictly regulated by the FDA.)
In fact, just about every nutrient listed on a food label is
determined by laboratory test except for the carbohydrate
content: the amount of water, fat, crude protein and ash are
determined this way. But the total carbs are computed by
simply subtracting the total of the other ingredients from
the total amount of food, a kind of process of elimination.
So while fat and protein are measured with precise lab
tests, carbohydrate totals are figured by the leftovers.
(The water and ash, by the way, are not usually listed on
Within the general carbohydrate group, are several
categories of carbohydrates that produce very different
effects in your body. These categories can be divided into
sugar, sugar alcohols, dietary fiber and a collection of
various chemicals that include organic acids, flavonoids,
gums, lignans and others.
According to the FDA, the food label only has to list the
total carbs, sugar and dietary fiber. But some food
companies now list things like sugar alcohols.
Blood Sugar Effects
Not all of these types of carbohydrates behave the same way
in your body. For example, when your body digests table
sugar, it turns immediately into blood sugar. So sugar and
most other carbohydrate is what we call "digestible
carbohydrate." Other carbs, such as sugar alcohol or
glycerine, can be digested but do not turn to blood sugar.
Still others, such as dietary fiber, are indigestible and
pass through your body without impacting your blood sugar
To date, the FDA has not focused on these important
biochemical differences and treats all carbohydrates alike.
This means that when you look at a food label, you do not
see a number for the carbs that impact your blood sugar
level. To do so, simply subtract the number of grams of
fiber from the total number of carbohydrate grams.
Recently, the phrases "low carb," "net carb" and "impact
carbs" have begun to appear on food labels. These are not
defined by the FDA; they were put on labels by by companies
to help consumers pick out foods that are acceptable on low-carb
To arrive at the total of net carbs, food companies subtract
the total amount of fiber and sugar alcohol from the total
Since the body cannot digest fiber, this nutrient (which is
still important for good health) is not calculated into the
total amount of carbohydrates. As for sugar alcohols,
while-technically speaking-these are carbs and they do have
calories, they have little effect on blood sugar and usually
are not counted in total carbohydrates.
According to the American Dietetic Association, people with
diabetes who are managing their blood sugars using the
carbohydrate counting method should "count half of the grams
of sugar alcohol as carbohydrates since half of the sugar
alcohol on average is digested.
" Fiber is not digested, however. If the serving of food has
more then 5 grams of fiber one should subtract the grams of
fiber from the total carbohydrate grams." As you can see,
when it comes to food, as in most things, knowledge is
power. If you want power over your health, you need power
over the food you eat. The road to that power is by reading
food labels. What's in the food you're eating every day may