It is National Nutrition Month and this week I want to share with you some insight on what you need to know about food labels.
The confusing and bureaucratic-filled process by which the United States came to pass our food labeling system is overwhelming – and a topic for another blog post.
However, just know the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services are required to revisit the guidelines every five years.
These two government agencies appoint a joint committee, review research, and determine the final design and text.
The lobbyist for organizations such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America; the American Society for Clinical Nutrition; National Cattleman’s Association; the National Pork Producers Council; and the National Dairy Farmer’s of America shell out big bucks to influence our government policy and actions made in regards to our food labels.
As Marion Nestle states in her book, Food Politics,
“food lobbyists are people who ask government officials to make rules or laws that will benefit their clients’ companies, whether or not they benefit anyone else. They are paid to represent private, not public interest.”
Read Food Labels Carefully
Always start by looking at the serving size and the number of servings in the package.
The next section shows the number of calories per serving (but consider the number of servings in the container).
Also, this tells you how many of those calories are from fat.
A good rule of thumb is that a complete meal should have fewer than 1/3 of its calories from fat.
Next is the amount of fat, cholesterol, and sodium in each serving.
If it lists any trans-fats – don’t buy it!
Carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and proteins are listed next.
Look closely at the amount of sugar.
Remember, whole foods, such as fruits and juices are high in natural sugars; it is a good idea to limit the amount of “sugars,” you find in processed foods.
Each teaspoon of sugar is 5 grams of carbohydrate, so when you are looking at an item with added sugar, simply multiple the number of grams of sugar by 4 to know how many added calories you are getting.
The next section shows the information on vitamins and minerals; which are reported as a percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance, so generally, the higher the percentage, the better.
The last section is a guide to the recommended amounts of fats, cholesterol, sodium, etc.
Evaluate Your Pantry
If any of these items are listed in the first three ingredients on your pantry items, reconsider using the product or at least take a closer look at the nutrition label:
Food Label Definitions
The following are terms frequently used by advertisers on food labels and the governmental standards the brands must abide by:
“Diet” – it must be either low calorie, reduced-calorie or have special use in a diet. Diabetic foods can be labeled “diet” for this reason.
“More”– means that a serving of food must contain a nutrient that is at least 10% more of the Daily Value than the reference food.
This applies to all foods, whether they have been altered in some way or not.
For example, if a cereal has 10% more fiber than regular cereal, the package can be labeled “more fiber.”
Foods labeled as “fortified,” “enriched” “added” “extra” and “plus” are similar, but in these cases, the food must be one that has been altered.
Cereal that has simply had fiber added to it to increase the fiber content, instead of using a different grain already containing that fiber cannot be labeled as fortified, enriched, added, extra, or plus.
“Less” – must contain 25% less of a particular nutrient or 25% fewer calories than a similar food. This applies to whether the food was altered or not.
“High” – the product must have at least 20% more of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient in a serving.
“Good Source” is used on labels similar to the term “high” in that food only has to be between 10 – 19 % of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient.
Other Food Label Definitions…
Surprisingly, no laws exist mandating a definition for the word fresh.
The Food and Drug Administration created regulations because the agency felt the word “FRESH” was being misused by food companies…
The following are the FDA standards:
- The word FRESH can be placed on a label only “when it suggests the food is raw or unprocessed.”
- The food must be raw; never frozen, never heated, and contains no preservatives.
- If frozen quickly after harvest, food can be labeled as “fresh frozen, frozen fresh, freshly frozen.“
- Food blanched before freezing can still use the label “FRESH.”
Our system does not have any guidelines for what NATURAL means.
It could mean the item contains lard or sugar because these are natural products.
The term natural has nothing to do with whether the food is healthy or not.
Foods can be labeled healthy if it is low in fat and low in saturated fat.
The product must also have no more cholesterol or sodium than recommended by the FDA.
It does not mean the product is sugar-free.
The product has to have at least 25% less fat, calories, cholesterol or sodium than the regular counterpart. This does NOT mean it has fewer calories.
Cookies can be labeled “reduced-fat” however, they are high in calories because the manufacturers add more sugar, flour, and high-calorie ingredients to help improve the flavor.
“PERCENT FAT-FREE, OR % FAT-FREE”
for example 99% fat-free, it has to be low-fat food.
By definition, this means it must have 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
“Low calories” mean 40 calories or less per serving.
“Low cholesterol” means 20 mg or less.
“Low fat” means 3 grams of fat or less.
AND IT DOES NOT MEAN FEWER CALORIES
SOMETIMES, LOW-FAT FOODS ARE HIGHER IN SODIUM THAN THEIR FULL FAT COUNTERPART
Low in saturated fat means <1 gram in each serving.
Low sodium means 140 mg or less; very low sodium means 35 mg or less.
Low, few, little or small all mean the same thing in the food industry.
“UNSALTED OR NO SALT ADDED”
These labels mean, no additional salt was added to the food, which does NOT mean the food will be low in sodium.
Some foods contain ingredients naturally high in sodium, such as baking soda, miso, flour, celery, and crab – all of these could technically be labeled “unsalted.”
Can you see the absurdness of our food labeling system?
According to Nestle, “in the food industry, 500 lobby agency executives are former political appointees.” – (95).
These food lobbyists make sure the government does nothing to impede their clients’ ability from selling more products.
Can you imagine our supermarkets and grocery stores void of any processed foods?
The Grocery Manufacturers of America would dissolve.
Be very conscientious of when you buy food for your family and read our ridiculous food labels.
Tell me what you think!
Vegetarian Taco Casserole
- 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 onion sliced
- 4 cups fresh spinach chopped
- 1 cup crumbled firm tofu
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- cooking oil spray
- 4 corn tortillas - 6-inches diameter
- 15 oz can pinto or black beans preferably low sodium or no salt added. rinsed and drained
- 1 cup salsa with no more than 85 mg sodium per 2 tablespoons
- 3/4 cup grated 2% cheddar cheese
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees
- In a large bowl, combine cilantro, onion, spinach, tofu, oil, salt and pepper.
- Spray a glass or ceramic 8-inch square or a 6 x 10 baking dish with cooking spray
- Lay 2 tortillas in the bottom of the baking dish (they can overlap)
- Cover tortillas and bottom of baking dish with 1/2 of beans, 1/2 spinach mixture, 1/2 the salsa and 1/2 the cheese.
- Repeat steps, starting with a new layer of remaining 2 tortillas, topping with remaining 1/2 beans, remaining 1/2 spinach mixture, remaining 1/2 salsa and remaining 1/2 cheese.
- Bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 20 minutes.