Understanding Food Labels at the Supermarket
Many terms that we know the meaning of from a dictionary, do not have the dictionary definition or even the common language meaning we might be familiar with when they appear on a food label. The words used in advertising can actually be bought and patented to mean whatever they need to mean. Manufacturers could legally call bleached or lye-soaked black beans “purified beans” or “white beans” in the product name.
The Nutrition Facts Panel
The Nutrition Facts product label was developed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to alert consumers to nutrients and calories in foods and beverages. It must list the number of calories, fats, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sodium, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamins, and minerals per serving, as well as the serving size, and the number of servings per container.
The FDA, USDA, Health and Human Services (HHS), and other governmental agencies say they update the Nutrition Facts panel to regulate health claims based on scientific research and consensus panels. The following phrases explain what is in a food item:
Calories and Calories From Fat. This wording indicates the number of calories in a serving, and how many of the calories come from fat. This information is for one serving as defined on the label, regardless of how many items are in the package.
Ingredients. Items in foods are listed on the labels in top-down order of their amounts present. In the list, they show up by percentage of the whole with the greatest amount at the top of the list. Fruit drinks, for instance, start with filtered water, sugar, apple (one of the cheapest fruits so it often comprises the majority of many fruit drinks, generally in concentrate form). A good rule to follow is that the fewer the ingredients, the better.
Minerals and Vitamins. Minerals and vitamins are listed by their percentage of the daily value (%DV) only and are usually synthetic. Note the dietary amounts of important vitamins like D, A, C, calcium, and magnesium. Make a conscious effort to get natural sunshine for vitamin D, carrots and green vegetables (organic and raw are best) for vitamin A, peppers for vitamin C, and a multi-mineral supplement for calcium and magnesium.
Nutrients by Weight and %DV. This shows how much of each nutrient is in one serving by its weight in grams and by %DV. The %DV is similar to the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of a nutrient, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Sugars and protein aren’t nutrients and aren’t listed by %DV. Fats are listed as Total Fat and new labelling guidelines now also require that they be separated into saturated fat and trans fat. Of the two, trans fat is the one to be most avoided.
Serving Size. Reading this information clarifies that the size of a portion may not coincide with consumers’ ideas. Pastries may be packaged separately from four to a box. The label may indicate that one serving is 400 calories – but that’s for only one.
Meat and Poultry Labeling
Other than for infant formula or baby food, there’s no uniform standard for food dating in America. It is not required by the USDA and state regulations vary. For labels on meat and poultry, the wording is provided, such as fresh, organically raised, or raised without hormones, as well as a Sell By date, Best if sold by date, and Best if used by date.
Product date labels refer only to the quality of food, and consumers must determine for themselves when food may have become unsafe. According to the USDA, some common date labels that manufacturers use are defined this way:
The Sell By date indicates how long the store should display the product for sale. Manufacturers generally recommend a product not be sold after its Sell By date, but it is more about flavour than a safety date. Still, if the flavour is thought to degrade by that date, it’s a good assumption the product should no longer be considered fresh after that.
The Best If Used By (or before) date is the last date recommended for production use at peak quality. This is the last day for product use for the best flavour but is not a purchase or safety date.
Labels may provide guidelines for handling raw meat and poultry, and unless a product is labelled fully cooked, it should be handled and prepared as if raw. Some products that appear pre-cooked, are raw and not ready to eat.
For those who hate to waste food and can accept bland taste, researchers indicate meats can often be soaked in hydrogen peroxide, either as an indicator of or a treatment for bacterial contamination. Profuse foaming indicates considerable bacteria. But since peroxide kills bacteria, if several treatments or soaks no longer induce foaming (as bacteria is concentrated on the exposed exterior) the item may then be safe to eat, although not necessarily favourable. This is not a recommended practice.
Read and Decipher Supermarket Food Labels
How to decipher the label information on supermarket foods and groceries has become a challenge. The following list of terms contains advertising adjectives used on labels to describe the processing of canned and packaged products so they will appear desirable. This is intended to help them sell better than if the uncolourful truth were printed.
Here’s what they really mean:
Fortified, Enriched, Added, Extra, and Plus
These words are generally applied to bread, cookies, crackers, and packaged substances, and mean that during their processing, nutrients (minerals, fibre, etc.), have been removed and vitamins, usually synthetic, have been added. The best quality foods have labels stating 100% of the product you expect to be buying is in it, such as 100% whole-wheat bread, crackers, cookies, and high-fibre, low-sugar regarding cereal. Food labels must list the amounts of macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrate, including fibre) and the vitamin and mineral content of the product.
According to Dr William Campbell Douglass II in his September 2009 health newsletter Daily Dose , “Fortification is a deceitful practice that tricks people into thinking it’s safe to eat lousy food — not to mention the fact that these foods are usually fortified with only small amounts of shoddy low-quality nutrients, not nearly enough to help someone get what they truly need.”
Made with Wheat, Rye, or Multigrain
Products labelled this way may have very little real whole grain. If you’re looking for a 100% whole-grain product, look for “whole” before “grain”, and “100%”, to ensure you’re getting the healthy food you want.
This simply means that the substance came from a natural source, but after it’s processed, there are no guarantees it will resemble anything natural unless labelled “100% All Natural” and “No Preservatives.” Unlike “organic,” a word that is legally regulated, “natural”, when found in a local supermarket, can mean just about anything.
Organically Grown, Pesticide-free, or No Artificial Ingredients
The Organic Crop Improvement Association, a member-owned, nonprofit organization that provides research, education, and certification services to organic growers, processors, and handlers around the world, is the Midwest’s leading certification agency for organic produce. Their stipulations are that anything to be labelled “organic produce” must be grown on fields that have not been sprayed with insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides.
This term generally means there’s little or no real fruit in it unless it is labelled “100% Fruit Juice.”
Sugar-free or Fat-free
In January of 2006, the FDA set out new requirements for food manufacturers to clearly indicate on product labels the presence of any possible consumer allergens in a product. Even though food processors are supposed to clean machines thoroughly before beginning a new run with a different product, manufacturers must state if a product might contain proteins from any of eight major allergenic foods, assuming that traces from a previous substance processed on the same machine might ‘contaminate’ the product enough to cause an allergy in a sensitive individual. These foods include milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
The best information that any consumer can have, is knowledge of the way words are used to describe the items we buy that we no longer pick off trees or out of our gardens. Deceptive marketing practices used by manufacturers and food processors are enhanced by how they use words such as “high fructose corn syrup” as if it were a healthy ingredient when it simply means mercury-contaminated sugary corn syrup.
Some consumers don’t mind it because they connect the term fructose with fruit sugar, and assume it is a natural food and healthier than regular sugar. Many other consumers know that High Fructose Corn Syrup should be avoided, but don’t know why. Some feel it’s because it is almost certainly made from genetically modified corn and then processed with genetically modified enzymes. A team of investigators at the USDA, led by Dr. Meira Field, has discovered that there are more reasons than that.
Sucrose is comprised of glucose and fructose. Studies were done giving rats large amounts of sugar. The rats, especially those deficient in copper (a rampant deficiency in Americans), developed multiple health problems. Repeat studies used two groups of rats; one given glucose and one given fructose. The end results showed the glucose group to be unaffected by the high sugar diet, but many of the fructose group did not survive. Many males died, from anaemia, high cholesterol, and heart hypertrophy; when the heart enlarges and explodes.
Other problems included delayed testicular development. Fructose combined with a copper deficiency interferes with collagen production, so the rats’ bodies just disintegrated. The young born to the females of this group were stillborn. Dr. Field explained that every cell in the body can metabolize glucose, but fructose must be metabolized in the liver. The livers of the rats on the fructose diet were cirrhotic and plugged with fat, like livers of alcoholics.
The contamination of HFCS with mercury is yet another issue. According to an article in the scientific journal Environmental Health, mercury has been found in nearly 50 per cent of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Another study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) detected mercury in close to one-third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverages where HFCS is the first or second-highest labelled ingredient, all made by food giants like Quaker, Hershey’s, Kraft, and Smucker’s.
A potent and dangerous neurotoxin, even minutely low levels of mercury can cause permanent damage to develop brains, short-circuit the immune or cardiovascular system, and destroy organs like the kidneys and liver. Fish are currently the only food products monitored for methylmercury, but no other food products are regulated for any form of mercury contamination.
HFCS manufacturers use mercury-grade caustic soda in the production process, something the FDA has known since 2004, yet they have taken no steps to warn the public or use their powers to halt it. Children are the prime consumers of mercury-contaminated HFCS-sweetened products, but still, no action is being taken. HFCS contains more fructose than regular sugar and it is more immediately available. Also, the effects of fructose are most severe during growth stages.
While fruit drinks sweetened with HFCS could have devastating effects on anyone, it is especially true they should be strictly avoided for children. Shoppers and their children, unaware of facts like these that are not being publicized, may pay a high price for not reading labels before buying HFCS-sweetened products.
Health Claims Affect Sales
The Nutritional Labeling and Education Act was put in place over a decade ago, yet obesity in America is still increasing. Studies continue to investigate whether consumers are making healthier food choices using the current implementation of nutrition labels, or if, indeed, the information they are depending on is actually inaccurate to support healthy lifestyles.
For example, items labelled no trans fat or low calorie tends to significantly increase sales, while items labelled low fat now decrease sales. Combining multiple claims in a single label has been found to reduce the overall effectiveness of the label.
Nielsen surveys indicate that when it comes to food, consumers are quite vulnerable to advertising. Approximately 26 per cent of shoppers worldwide say they only closely examine nutrition labelling of products they think of as being unhealthy, but they tend not to examine foods they assume to be healthy the same way. The following options are ways to get the most out of the FDA’s Nutrition Facts panel:
For value, read the weight of the package and the portion size. Americans are used to supersizing it. But even if they weren’t, consumers generally recognize manufacturer-designated portion sizes are often not what the consumer would agree were enough for one portion. If you have to eat the whole package instead of one-quarter of it, it may not be such a bargain.
Products with added sugars are more likely to cause weight gain than dietary fat will. Items labelled low-fat mean that the flavouring the fat provides is also removed, so processors must compensate for the blandness, and usually do so with added sugar. Thus, low-fat foods are generally higher in sugar and may actually be more fattening, as well as more tasteless than an ordinary product.
Limit trans fats, sugars, empty carbohydrates, and sodium intake to reduce your risk of chronic diseases.
Be sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium in your diet daily.
Read the ingredients list to choose foods that contain fewer additives and preservatives or increase whole grains in your diet, as well as become aware of allergenic substances if someone in your family has food allergies.