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In most countries, there are regulatory bodies that use food labels as a standardized way of representing nutritional information and ingredient lists so that people have transparency regarding the food they eat. In recent years, a lot of concerning issues have come to light about how our food is produced.
This has ranged from the extensive use of pesticides to the conditions farm animals are raised in. There are also certain words like ‘no additives’ or ‘natural’ that are not regulated by the FDA in the US.
This terminology can cause mass confusion among customers because the definition of those terms will vary from brand to brand.
So, to ease the confusion we will go through how to interpret nutrition information and what the definition of protected terms like ‘organic’ really mean.
Most packaged foods are required to have nutritional information about things like calories, carbohydrate, protein and fat content. With rising levels of obesity and diabetes, it has never been more crucial for customers to have access to this information.
Pay attention to the serving size
Serving sizes are generally given in standard measurements like tablespoons or cups. The package should also have the number of servings per package.
Serving size is important because its standardized form makes it easier to relate different types of food and decide between them. Also, all the nutrition information such as carbohydrate and calorie content is usually based on the serving size.
Number of Calories
This is one of the most vital parts of any nutrition label. A consistent overconsumption of calories has led to an obesity and heart disease epidemic and several parts of the US. Hence, calorie information can make a world of a difference to someone’s diet.
It’s hard to accurately gauge the number of calories in a type of food because most of the calories can be ‘hidden’. There are healthy salads sold in supermarkets that have more calories than a Big Mac!
The number of calories will often be per serving or per 100g. From this, you can estimate how many calories you’re getting if you consume the whole package or container. It’s also important to see what percentage of the calories are coming from fat or sugars. If it’s very high, the food is most likely unhealthy.
Pay attention to %DV
Most food packaging around the world are required to show a breakdown of the nutrients and how much of the recommended daily intake of the nutrient is in the food per serving. Most regulatory bodies will have a recommended daily value for all nutrients, whether good or bad. In the UK, it is called the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) and in the US, it is the daily value (%DV).
It’s important to note that recommended daily values are often based on a diet of 2,000 calories for the average adult and so, are meant as guidelines. If you have higher calorie requirements due to intense physical exercise or pregnancy, these values may change.
Fats are the most misunderstood of all the food groups. It has been demonised to some degree by the media and has been linked extensively to heart disease, cancer and a plethora of other diseases. But, not all fats are bad and as humans, we need fat for survival.
The most beneficial of all fats is Omega-3 fat found in flax seeds and oily fish. Omega-3 fats have shown to play a crucial role in the formation of neurons in our brains. Unsaturated fats, for example, are found in most plant-based sources such as nuts and seeds. These are beneficial to our health.
Saturated fats and trans fats are what people need to look out for. Trans fats are especially bad and are found in unhealthy, heavily fried foods. Saturated fats aren’t as bad as trans fats, but it is good to limit them.
Saturated fats are found in dairy and animal products such as butter. Trans fats raise LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, thus increasing the risk of heart disease.
Most packaged food will indicate how much of the calories are coming from saturated and trans fats. Some countries even have colour coding for saturated fat content. Trans fat content has been required to show from 2006. https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/how-to-read-food-labels#1
Be cautious around alternative terms for trans fats such as ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’. If you see ‘0 trans-fat’ and ‘partially hydrogenated’ in the ingredients section, it contains very little trans-fat, less than 0.5 g.
Being the number one cause of diabetes, sugar is another villain in the food industry and responsible for piling on the calories in food.
It is recommended to eat foods with sugar not exceeding 5g. Look for alternative terms like ‘high fructose corn syrup’ or ‘dextrose’.
Also, look out for ‘no added sugar’ which doesn’t indicate a low sugar content. Plenty of foods are naturally high in sugars.
High levels of sodium can lead to high blood pressure, so this is also a nutrient that needs to be limited. Most processed foods will contain high sodium levels. The daily limit for sodium is 2,300mg which is less than a teaspoon. This number goes down to 1,500 mg if you’re predisposed to hypertension.
Essential nutrients like fibre, vitamins, and minerals will also be included in most nutrition information as %DVs. Every healthy adult is required to consume 25-30g of fibre a day.
Food manufacturers are required to show a list of all the ingredients contained in the food. It is arranged according to decreasing weight, so pay attention to the first few ingredients as they have the highest content in the food.
Most ingredients lists are also required to show any allergens in the food or the environment it was prepared in.
Other food labels and what they mean
- ‘-free’ means that there is a very small amount in the food. ‘’Cholesterol-free” means there’s less than 2g of cholesterol in the food.
- ‘Natural” is an unregulated term in most foods except for meat or poultry and can mean anything. For meat and poultry, natural doesn’t refer to the food itself, but how it is processed.
- ‘100% Organic”. This label from the USDA means that the food only contains organic ingredients (doesn’t apply to water or salt). Organic doesn’t mean healthy. Organic sugar is still a culprit for diabetes
- ‘Made with Organic Ingredients” means that 70% or more of the contents come from organic food sources and doesn’t carry the USDA seal.
- ‘Free Range” is also a largely unregulated term. It means that the birds can access the outdoors for most of their lives. However, having access doesn’t mean they spent time outside of their cage.