Food labels 101…

Why do I need to know how to read labels?

As in everything you do in life, whether at work or at play, there is a foundation that must be established in order for it to be effective.

Athletes in all sports need to learn the proper technique of the movements they practice before they can improve, otherwise injury will result.

The same is true in a nutrition program.  One of the most important components of a strong nutrition foundation is knowing how to read labels.  Without this understanding, you will wander without guidance and be misled on what you think is good for you.

Understanding to read food labels is not a diet. It’s the language that you learn in order to follow any type of diet or nutrition program you undertake.

The history of food labels…

Food labels has evolved over time but its’ origins can be traced back when in 1862 President Lincoln launched the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Chemistry which was the predecessor of the Food and Drug Administration.

In 1906, a very famous book called ‘The Jungle’ by Upton Sinclair which exposed the unsanitary and working conditions of the meat packaging industry led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act.  Foods were now being forced to meet standards.

Between 1906 and 1965 many acts and standards were passed in order to improve food quality. They came about due to lack of regulations in the food industry.

In 1965, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act required all consumer products to be honestly and informatively labeled, including food.

The fight between government standards and food industry…

The following is my opinion based on articles, news and documentaries that I have read or seen over the years.

Government standards started for a reason. With zero regulation you could package food in any form possible, state any claims for that product, and have zero liability for its’ consequences.  Through consumer outrage and unfortunately, deaths along the way, regulations were born and have evolved along the way.

There has always been an adversarial relationship between the food industry and the government. Although not a food but a product that is consumed by the public, one is very familiar with the battles between government regulators and the tobacco industry on warning labels for cigarettes.

Another example is when the government required foods using the sweetener saccharin to caution of it possibly being a cancer causing agent back in 1977, the need for that label was repealed in 1995. This was through constant lobbying efforts by the food industry.

The bottom line is this, the food industry is in business to maximize profit. It’s big business. Their business model sometimes conflicts with what may or may not be safe for human consumption and claims for their products can be stretched in order to be misleading to their benefit.

The FDA stands in the way many times, in maximizing their profits and therein lies the problem.

Trust is earned. We already saw what happened back in history when there was no regulation.  There is no doubt in my mind that if we went back to zero standards we would be back to where we started.

This history between government regulation and the food industry is important to understand because to this day, what is required by the FDA in terms of labeling is heavily influenced by the food industry to their benefit. They accomplish this through strong lobbying efforts.

This is why understanding how to read food labels is so important so you can learn where they try to mislead one.

For a detailed look at food label requirements, here is a link to the FDA:

So what do I need to know about food labels?

This is a standard food label. I  have broken it down into the sections that are important to read and understand:

1. Servings: Each package will tell you how large is a serving for that product and how many servings this package contains.  CAUTION: this is where some companies will mislead. They will get a package that the normal person will consume and say that this is for two or more servings. The reason is that the rest of the nutrition information given, items 2-4 primarily, will look better when in fact you will probably eat or drink the entire content!

2. Calories: This is the calories this product delivers PER SERVING. If you eat/drink the whole thing and it had more than one serving you have to multiply the calories by the number of servings to get the true calorie count.  This also gives you the calories derived from fat. VERY IMPORTANT!

In this example you have a product that has 250 total calories and fat calories are 110 of those 250. To get a fat calories percentage, you divide 110 by 250 to get 44% of all calories come from fat.

As an example, I try to get NO MORE than 20% of my calories from fat. So this is more than double the percentage of fat that I like to consume.

Also note if you were to eat/drink the entire contents in this example, you would have taken in 500 calories and 220 of those were fat calories since you have to multiply everything by two since there are two servings in this product.

Items like potato chips, cookies, drinks, etc are famous for lowering the size of a serving in a container. There are multiple servings yet everyone consumes the entire product in one sitting.

3. Total Fat:  This is the total amount of grams of fat (by fat type) in this product by serving and also note that it shows ‘% Daily Value’.  This CAN be very misleading.

In this example it shows the % Daily Value for this to be 18%.  But in section 2 above I said this product was 44% fat calories. What’s the difference?

Daily Value of anything is an acceptable amount as stated by the FDA of certain items such as fats and carbs. It is usually explained at the bottom of the label in this case where I have marked it 6.

In food labels, it is shown that if you consumed this product, you would have met x% of that Daily Value. This is far different than how much fat calories you are consuming. Many people do not calculate the percentage of fat calories because they think the % Daily Value is doing that for them.

Two more things on fat. First there are good and bad fats. Bad fats are saturated fats and trans fats. Good fats are monounsaturated fats,  polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3s. So in this example, this product has 100% of bad fats!!!!

Secondly, fat % is measured in calories but some food products advertise their fat % by volume. This is a HUGE difference.

So lets take Milk for example. It is advertised as 1%, 2%  and whole milk. This is by volume! Almost everyone thinks that 1% milk is 1% fat…WRONG!

When you take the fat calories in a serving of milk and divide it by the total calories, this is the reality:

1% milk is about 20% fat calories

2% milk is about 34% fat calories

Whole milk is about 50% fat calories

4. Total Carbs: This is the total amount of carbohydrates, in grams, contained in this product by serving.  It is usually broken down into the two types of carbs, complex and simple.  This is shown in several ways such as fiber (complex carbs), and sugar (in this example which is a form of simple carbs).  The key you are looking for here is fiber and sugar content.  The more fiber and less sugar the better. Read my blog post on fiber and sugar in a diet for a more detailed explanation.

Sometimes you will also see something called ‘Sugar Alcohol’. This is the artificial sweetener such as aspartame or sucralose.

5-7: These gives you additional nutritional values of what you are eating such as vitamins, minerals along with the % Daily Nutritional Value and how this is based.

So what do I look for?

Well that all depends on what type of diet or meal plan you are following.  You want to pay special attention to the amount of fats you are taking in as well as sugars and fiber. This would be true in most diets.

Sodium is another important factor since there are some medical illnesses where you have to control your sodium intake.  Canned and frozen foods can contain high amounts of this since it helps in preserving the food so extra caution in reading the labels when buying that kind of product.

A great site I have found that has just about anything and everything that you would find in a grocery store and it gives each product a grade based on the actual food label that must be posted on the product is Calorie Count by Food Label.

Everyone I have trained and given nutrition advice too I have sent to this link. It is truly a wealth of information. Once you have learned to read labels then fact check it on this site, you will become totally fluent in making proper food choices.

This process takes time but it is probably the most important thing you can learn to a healthier lifestyle.

Learn to read food labels in order to be….Fit Forlife

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