More (Lots more!) On Food Labels

18 04 2013


Well, just when I think I’ve provided my audience with a couple excellent and informative pieces on Nutrition Facts Labels (number 2 right here), my friends over at Precision Nutrition have to go and one-up me with an entire series on food labels; not one article, not two articles, but five. If the information wasn’t so damn amazing, I’d be a bit upset. Instead, I’m going to assume that I inspired them to elaborate on such an important subject. Great job, Dain.

Anyway, I encourage you all to peruse each of the 5 articles (it is legitimately very well put-together), but here is a brief breakdown:

Part 1: What’s on your food label?

  • This section gives a nice history lesson about food labels, where they came from and why they exist, and gives some interesting information on where certain companies get their nutrition facts; most interesting was likely the answer from Kraft, who provided no information on how they determine the nutritional content of their foods…
  • Essentially summarizes that labels are helpful, but that we as consumers should simply use them as guidelines. Whole, unprocessed foods are (as usual) highly recommended.

Part 2: Label claimscereal4

  • This section gives an overview of common labelling issues (descriptive terms vs. trademarks, the meaning of the term ‘natural’, what does ‘artificial’ even mean anymore, incongruous terms that make things seem healthy, etc.)
  • Details on how front-package labeling is highly unregulated and misleading
  • The very interesting relationship between Nutrition Labels and the American Heart Association (which has endorsed products such as Cocoa Puffs breakfast cereal, Welch’s fruit juice, and other un-heart-healthy foods)
  • A great case study outlining the issue with ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) scores for certain foods (in this case, soymilk has a higher score than turkey, and they debunk the crap out of it!)

Part 3: Doing the math

  • Here we find an in-depth look at the nutritional information and ingredients on packaging. In particular, they look at how calorie counts don’t accurately reflect how our bodies process food and challenge the classic “calorie math” of “energy in versus energy out”: while many of us act like calorie tallying experts, data shows that few of us can accurately gauge how many we’re actually eating each day”
  • Here is an amazing passage:

“Your body is smarter than you. It’s a dynamic, adaptive, living organism. Not a machine.  Your body can “gear up” and “gear down” its energy use depending on a variety of factors such as hormones, metabolic functions (such as recovering from a hard training session), and perceived food availability.

Ever had the “meat sweats” after eating a big, protein-heavy meal? You’re experiencing the “thermic effect” of harder-to-digest foods. The body has to “gear up” and get things revving to accommodate this demand. Or conversely, perhaps you’ve dieted hard for a long time, and find yourself cold, lacking energy and mojo. Your body’s “geared down” your metabolic functions to conserve energy.”

  • They discuss the variables that go into the breakdown of calories in the body, and the variability and margin of error of calories on nutrition labels

Part 4: Being a critical consumer

  • This sections discusses what consumers typically look for on labels (whether they know what they’re actually looking for or not), and how the information on nutrition labels can be misinterpreted. We also learn what demographics read labels, and more statistics on why people are or are not using the information properly.
  • What is the different between “reading” and “understanding a label. Do nutrition facts labels even help??
  • Again, we come back to the lesson: less processed crap, more whole foods.
Hmmm... This label may not be entirely accurate.

Hmmm… This label may not be entirely accurate.

Part 5: Putting it all together

  • Finally, this section gives out 9 tips and action steps to ensure you’re getting the most from food labels:
  1. Slow down: Take your team, read diligently
  2. Keep it real: The majority of your diet should come from whole, unprocessed foods; this makes food labels unimportant
  3. Prioritize ingredients over calories: If the ingredients suck, it doesn’t really matter much what the calorie, fat and sugar grams are on the label.
  4. Comparison shop: Compare products, and pick the ones with more good stuff (protein and fibre, for example) and less bad stuff (sugar and salt, for example)
  5. Do it yourself: Don’t trust the ingredients? Take a picture of the label, and go home and make a healthier version yourself!
  6. Don’t believe the front of the package: The front lies.
  7. Get beyond the numbers: Calories are overrated. Stop obsessing.
  8. Use common sense: Don’t trust ads and slogans; turn the package over and check out the ingredients.
  9. Set your deal-breakers and “minimums”: If your deal-breakers are on the food label, you don’t buy or eat that food. Period.

And there you have it. A five-article, crash-course on how to read labels and become a more critical consumer. I’d like to think that I covered the most important points in my own two posts, but I’ll give credit where credit is due: this is awesome stuff.

For more information on nutrition facts labels, or anything else nutrition-related, you know how to find me!



The Truth About Nutrition Facts Labels

8 04 2013

LyingLabelsA few weeks ago I wrote up a piece on How To Read a Nutrition Facts Label. Nutrition labelling became mandatory in Canada for all prepackaged foods on December 12, 2007 (large companies were required to comply earlier in 2005). Nutrition Facts Labels were first implemented by the US in 1994. The goal of these labels is to give the consumer an idea of exactly what they are about to eat. The Food and Drugs Act (FDA) of Canada states the following:

The new regulations on nutrition labelling aim at preventing injury to the health of Canadians, including those with special dietary needs, by providing product-specific nutrient information to assist in making informed food choices. The objectives of these Regulations are:

– To enable consumers to make appropriate food choices in relation to reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases and permitting dietary management of chronic diseases of public health significance.

– To encourage the availability of foods with compositional characteristics that contribute to diets that reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.

Amazing, right? I’ve always been a huge fan of these labels because they make it easy for me to figure out what I’m putting into my body, and also because they give everyone a fair shot at eating a decent diet. I’ve thought about the accuracy of these labels in the past, but I never really looked into the details… until I saw this video:

For those of you that don’t have 6 minutes to spare, the state of New York is forcing chain restaurants (with over 20 locations nationally) to post the calorie content of all foods on their menu. This is great in theory, but nobody is enforcing the accuracy of these calorie claims- the FDA simply wants to see a number posted. The author of the video then goes on to compare the actual content of 5 foods vs. the claimed calorie content. The results?:

Banana nut muffin: Actual 735 vs. 640 Claimed

Starbucks grande frappuccino: Actual 393 vs. 370 Claimed

Chipotle barbacoa burrito: Actual 1290 vs. 1175 Claimed

Kosher, vegan, spicy tofu sandwich: Actual 548 vs. 228 Claimed (WOAH)

Subway 6″ turkey sandwich: Actual 350 vs. 360 Claimed

Overall, if consumed in one day, this person would have taken in an extra 549 calories than anticipated, which is legitimately quite significant.

This is what an extra 550 calories looks like.

This is what an extra 550 calories looks like.

This was just one study and is obviously inconclusive, but it made me think, so I did a bit more research. In both Canada and the US, the FDA gives a 20% leeway for the accuracy of the claims on nutrition facts labels. With this in mind, it is legal to claim that a 120-calorie snack contains only 100 calories (not a huge deal)… but also that a 600-calorie meal can be said to have only 500 calories (this is a little troublesome). Additionally, I explored the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website and found some discouraging information:

The CFIA is responsible for the enforcement of the Food and Drugs Act as it relates to food. No new resources have been identified to support the implementation of these Regulations. While it is the responsibility of the industry to comply with regulatory requirements, Health Canada and the CFIA are committed to facilitating the implementation of these Regulations in a manner that will retain the confidence of health protection professionals and consumers in the validity of the nutrition and health claims, while respecting the resources that CFIA has for enforcement.

The challenges for industry in generating product-specific nutrient data for nutrition labelling are recognized. Industry is responsible for ensuring the accuracy of label values and may choose the risk management strategy best suited to the food(s) to be labelled.

This is a long-winded explanation that essentially means: Yes, there is a 20% margin of error on Nutrition Facts Labels, but no, we do not verify every label as “industry is responsible for ensuring the accuracy of label values”. Damn. I dug a bit deeper and found an article in the US News which stated that a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that a sample of 300 randomly audited Nutrition Facts in the mid-1990s complied roughly 90 percent in regards to the acceptable 20% variance to actual levels. This is a small sigh of relief, but it is an extremely small sample size and the results are from nearly 2 decades ago. The article goes on to state that a 2010 study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs found that among 3,700 people ages 37 to 50, those who read nutrition labels (but did not exercise) were more likely to lose weight than those who did not read labels but did exercise. In other words, the awareness of a food’s approximate nutritional content, regardless of inaccuracies, does appear to influence eating behaviors in a beneficial way. So, when used responsibly as a guide, even inaccurate labels can be beneficial.

However, I haven’t even mentioned the topic of serving size, as there is often also a discrepancy between claimed serving size and actual serving size on Nutrition Facts Labels. Between the 20% leniency in caloric and nutrient accuracy, the fact that nobody really enforces this inaccuracy, and potential discrepancies in serving size, Nutrition Facts Labels can actually be quite deceiving.

Horrible grammar; outrageous example.

Horrible grammar; outrageous example.

In conclusion:

– Calorie counting does not work. If you are going solely based on Nutrition Facts Labels, your daily 2000 calorie diet could easily be closer to 2400 calories. These numbers should only be used as a guide, not as concrete information.

– The most valuable information on Nutrition Facts Labels will almost always be found in the ingredients section. As I’ve mentioned before, you should avoid ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, refined sugars, enriched flours, artificial sweeteners, etc.

– To avoid having to rely on inaccurate information, and to ensure a healthy diet, try to make sure the majority of your diet comes from unprocessed, natural food. Do your best to avoid the middle aisles at the grocery store and you’ll be well on your way to better nutrition.

Nutrition Facts Labels are great guides to help people make responsible nutrition decisions, but like most other things in this world, the information should be taken with a grain of salt. As always, be curious, ask questions, do your research and you’ll be ahead of the game!

For any nutrition-related questions, you know how to reach me!

Happy Monday!


How To (Really) Read a Nutrition Facts Label

2 02 2013

Nutrition Facts Labels are amazing. They spell out all the basic information needed for people to make responsible food choices. If you are serious about your health and nutrition, you should be looking at the Nutrition Facts of every product that you buy. Although reading these labels isn’t rocket science, I wanted to make a quick post on exactly what you should be looking for when you take those cookies off the shelf to make sure they’re not too bad for you.

nutrition_label1) Serving size: If you misread this part of the label, you’ll misread everything else. Most packaged food items, especially those that are really bad for you, will have multiple serving sizes per container. The label says only 90 calories, but there are 4 servings, which means there are 360 calories in the entire package. This is the first thing you should check.

2) Calories: I’m not a big proponent of counting calories because if you make healthy food choices, calories become much less important. However, if you are looking to lose weight, it’s all a numbers game: Your calories in will need to be less than your calories out. Check the calories, and this will help you determine how many “servings” are acceptable per meal.

3) Fats, cholesterol, sodium: In general, keep these low. However, as I mentioned in my post on Fat, we need an adequate amount of fat in our diets and saturated fat is not harmful as long as you are also consuming a balanced amount of unsaturated fats as well. Avoid trans fat as much as possible- this is the fat that will give you health problems. Also, much like calories, I rarely look at cholesterol. Studies have shown that dietary cholesterol intake has little-to-no effect on the level of cholesterol in the body. If you already have high cholesterol, this is something to watch for, but if you generally make healthy food choices, you won’t have to worry about this part of the label. Read this article and you’ll be smarter. Finally, pay attention to your sodium intake if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. If you lead a healthy, active lifestyle, don’t worry so much- I pay zero attention to the amount of sodium I put into my body.

4) Percent Daily Value: Again, this all comes down to serving size (the percentages are still based on this) and also your personal caloric intake. These numbers are based on a 2000 calorie diet, which is too many calories for some,  but too few for others- which means these figures can be quite misleading. If you pay attention to serving size and know exactly what your daily caloric intake should be, you can use these numbers as a guide to how much of the product you should actually be consuming per meal.

5) Fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals: Rule of thumb, you want as much of these things as possible. You really can’t consume too much. Eat a lot of foods that are high in fiber, protein (at least 1 g per pound of body weight daily), vitamins and minerals and your body will function as efficiently as possible.

6) Daily Values: This is basically a guide telling you how much fat, cholesterol, etc. should be consumed daily, based on 2000 and 2500 kcal diets. These can serve as nice little guidelines, but these figures are pretty bunk. We all have different dietary needs based on our current health conditions, activity levels and personal health/fitness goals, so take these numbers with a grain of salt.

7) Although number 7 isn’t specified on the diagram above, I just had to touch on one final point: Carbohydrate and sugar content. As you may have noticed in the link I posted above, sugar and processed unrefined carbs (along with trans fat) are the main culprits responsible for cardiovascular disease and health problems; not saturated fat and dietary cholesterol! As a general rule of thumb, keep your dietary sugar intake as low as possible, and read the ingredients list on the nutrition label as well. The two biggest ingredients to avoid (in my option) are:

High-fructose corn syrup: The number one source of calories in the US diet, and is linked to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Nearly all HFCS is made from genetically-modified corn and often contains traces of mercury as well. Avoid at all costs.

Enriched flours: Otherwise known as Wheat flour or Enriched White flour (if it doesn’t say WHOLE wheat, it’s not whole wheat). The fiber and nutritious germ (along with vitamins and minerals) have been removed in the refining process, then re-added to try and restore nutritional value. Pass.

And Nutrition Facts Labels!

And Nutrition Facts Labels!

**Bonus tip: Be wary of food that claim to be healthy and use phrases like: “added vitamins and minerals”, “wholesome”, “no added sugar”, “contains real fruit”, “all-natural”, “fat-free”, “low-carb”, “high-protein”, etc. Don’t let the front of the box tell you what it is; use your brain, read the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredients, and make your own educated decision.

Nutrition Facts Labels are helpful and easy to use, but be diligent and look at the proper information. As a general rule of thumb, try to avoid packaged, processed, factory-made “foods” and stick to fresh, natural food options. You’ll notice that these items either have no Nutrition Label at all (fruit, vegetables, meat, etc.) or contain a much friendlier calorie-nutrient ratio than packaged items.

If you have any additional questions on Nutrition Facts Labels, you know how to find me!