People are buying packaged food everyday, but according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, only around 60% of consumers read the nutrition labels. By not reading your food labels, just what type of information are consumers missing out on? Do consumers really know what they’re eating?

Food labels, at a first glance, may seem complicated with all the different bars and categories. Often times, we merely skim through the label before succumbing to our food cravings, too confused by all the words we don’t understand. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) introduced a new Nutrition Facts label in 2016–hoping to make the labels more understandable and informative for the consumers–which all food companies will have to use by 2019. Despite the additional facts included, the new labels still lack some crucial details.

But first, let’s break down the different parts of the label:

  1. Serving Size

When looking at nutrition labels, many consumers will often forget that all the information provided are actually per serving size. “Serving size” is essentially a method to compare different products. Common units used are cups, pieces, or slices. These units are then followed by measurements of weight, like grams. The serving sizes are made to reflect how much people normally consume in one sitting. It should be noted that the serving size for each person may differ, but it may be helpful to compare your normal portion to the serving size on the nutrition label to make sure you’re eating a well-balanced, healthy diet.

  1. Calories

The “Calorie” we see on food labels is actually a kilocalorie, or the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius. Essentially, this section tells you how much energy you’ll get from the product.

  1.  % Daily Value

As noted on the label itself, the % Daily Value assumes a 2,000-kilocalorie diet and informs you of how much the product contributes to your daily diet in each category.

  1. Fat

Under the category for “Total Fat”, you will find “Saturated Fat” and “Trans Fat”. Saturated fat is the type of fat with mostly single bonds in its fatty acid chains. Saturated fat is usually seen in products that are solid at room temperature, like butter, cheese, and cream. This differs from unsaturated fat, which contains double bonds, as there are more potential carbon-hydrogen bonds in saturated fat than in unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fat is usually seen in products that are liquid at room temperature, such as plant oils.

Trans fat, on the other hand, commonly refers to unsaturated fat that has been hydrogenated (treated with hydrogen) to become saturated fat. They were thought to be healthier than saturated fat, but with higher melting points that made them ideal for commercial baking. Trans fat raises levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, commonly known as “bad” cholesterol) and lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL, aka “good” cholesterol), and is thought to increase the risk of coronary artery disease, which could lead to heart attacks or failures. The FDA has noted that trans fat should not be recognized as safe, and set a three-year limit for their removal from processed foods in 2015.

While Trans fat is a type of unhealthy unsaturated fat, it should be noted that there are many healthy types of unsaturated fat, such as monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. These fats are commonly found in plants and seafood. They are not included on the nutrition label, which is why when the sum of “Saturated Fat” and “Trans Fat” do not add up to the gram of “Total Fat”.

While consuming high amounts of saturated fat has been linked to cardiovascular issues, it is highly improbably to cut out saturated fat completely from your diet since so many foods rich in healthy unsaturated fat will also contain some amount of saturated fat.

  1. Cholesterol & Sodium

Amounts of cholesterol and sodium are also on the food label. Generally, high consumption of sodium and cholesterol may increase risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and even certain types of cancers.

  1. Total Carbohydrate

This category includes all the types of carbohydrates in the product, such as sugars, sugar alcohols, starches, and dietary fibers. The food label, “Total Carbohydrates” is then broken down into “Dietary Fibers” and “Total Sugars”. Dietary fibers can be found in beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods, and helps with our digestive regularity. “Total Sugars” includes the sugar naturally found in foods, whereas the “Added Sugars” subcategory refers to the extra sugar added for taste, texture, and preservation.

  1. Protein

Proteins are also calories for the body, and can be found in both plants and animals, such as dairy products, meat, seafood, beans, and vegetables. They help the human body build and repair cells and tissues.

  1. Vitamins and More

In the last section of the label, there are categories for vitamins, calcium, iron, and potassium. Whereas in the old label, only the % Daily Value was stated, in the new label, the actual amount of vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium must now also be included.

  1. Ingredient List

All the ingredients are listed out in descending order of weight. This is the section that really tells you whether the product is healthy or not.

There are four additional changes that the FDA should make to the label. First of all, the nutrition facts should include the total amount of Calories contained in the whole product instead of just in one serving size. The idea behind a serving size is to estimate how much of the product people normally consume in one sitting. However, on bags of chips, or even on this small can of Pringles besides me right now, the serving size is about “16 Crisps”, which is not a very accurate portrayal of reality. While there are indeed times when I will share my chips with friends, there are also times, like today, when I eat the entire can in one sitting. Including the total amount of Calories on the label would be easier for snackers to be aware of how much they’re consuming.

As of now, a product can be labeled with 0g of Trans Fat if it contains less than 1 gram of trans fat per serving. This is because trans fat can occur naturally, like in the milk and body fat of ruminants (mammals that gain nutrients from food by fermenting it in a special stomach before digestion – e.g. sheep and cattle); however, since all the measurements are based on each serving, and the entire product usually contains more than one serving, the small amounts of trans fat can  add up. The second change the FDA could make is to have companies list out the small amount of trans fat per serving, or they could include the total trans fat content in the product.

Although the new labels now include “Added Sugars”, these added sugars can refer to sugar alcohols (thickeners and sweeteners) or sugars and syrups (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice, brown sugar, etc.). Another suggested change is that the labels should differentiate between sugar alcohols and sugar. This may not have a huge health impact, but while sugar alcohols are less commonly absorbed by the body, they can cause intestinal discomfort, bloating, and gas. Some consumers may prefer products with more artificial sweeteners, and some may prefer less. By including distinctions within “Added Sugars”, consumers would be able to identify the levels of these sweeteners and make an educated decision about eating the product.

Clarification is one of the most important changes that the FDA should make. Instead of having a cluttered ingredients list where most items are not well known outside of the factory, the ingredient list should be simplified. The exact ingredients can instead be included in additional subcategories in the nutrition facts section. However, for the ingredient list, listing out groups, such as stating “Added Sugar” instead of listing out “maple syrup, dextrose, maltose, fruit concentrates, and sucrose”, would be more beneficial for the customers who really don’t have that much time in the stores to try and decode all the ingredients of one product. The FDA should also force companies to be more transparent with their customers and tell them what’s really in the food products. For example, is there A “100% juice” sign on your carton? Better check and see the ingredient list. In 2009, Alissa Hamilton tried to bring the process of making orange juice to light through her book Squeezed: What you don’t know about Orange Juice. She writes that when making juice, companies extract the juice from the fruit and then pasteurize (a process that uses heat to kill microorganisms that can cause diseases) them for safety. During the process, the fruit flavor may be removed from the juice, so  companies have to add in flavor for the juice to taste good. Technically, the juice still made from fruit – but it’s been chemically altered for taste purposes. The flavor of the juice comes from flavor packs, which contains different mixtures of chemicals that mimic different aspects of the original juice in either smell or taste. What do these flavor packs include? Based on different preferences in different parts of the world, the companies will alter their flavor to suit their target consumers. As Hamilton writes,

The packs added to juice earmarked for the North American market tend to contain high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor. Mexicans and Brazilians have a different palate.”

The FDA does not require the contents of flavor packs to be included on the ingredient list, so figuring out if your juice is actually natural or not can be difficult. The FDA should require companies to put these information on the food labels so consumers can know if they’re buying the quality that they’re paying for. The consumers have a right to know what they’re buying and eating – by making the labels more transparent, the consumers could feel more at peace with the information available to them.

References

1.Ollberding, N. J., Wolf, R. L., & Contento, I. (2010). Food Label Use and Its Relation to Dietary Intake among US Adults. Journal of the American Dietetic Association,110(8), 1233-1237. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2010.05.007

2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Consumer Updates. (2015, June 16). FDA Cuts Trans Fat in Processed Foods. Retrieved from www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm372915.htm

 

3. Staff, A. (2012, June 21). Ask the Expert: Healthy Fats. Retrieved from www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2012/06/21/ask-the-expert-healthy-fats/

 

4. Hamilton, A. (2013, April 23). Freshly Squeezed: The Truth About Orange Juice in Boxes. Retrieved from civileats.com/2009/05/06/freshly-squeezed-thetruth-about-orange-juice-in-boxes/

 

 

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