They've often been the subject of criticisms, as some claim that they fail to provide enough information and that the data displayed can be misleading.
I'd rather say: they’re there, let’s take advantage of them.
All we need to do is to learn how to read them correctly and with some common sense we are going to do a lot of good to ourselves.
Title 21 “Food and Drugs” of the Code of Federal Regulation under §101.9 “Nutrition labeling of food” provides that:
(1) When food is in package form, the required nutrition labeling information shall appear on the label in the format specified in this section.
(2) When food is not in package form, the required nutrition labeling information shall be displayed clearly at the point of purchase (e.g., on a counter card, sign, tag affixed to the product, or some other appropriate device). Alternatively, the required information may be placed in a booklet, looseleaf binder, or other appropriate format that is available at the point of purchase.”
The law is pretty straightforward. Food shall bear the label in the form required by the law (unless expressly provided for).
What you can find on the label
The label begins with a standard serving size, calories are listed second, following that is a breakdown of the constituent elements. Fats, sodium, carbs and proteins are always listed.
Usually all 15 nutrients (such as fiber, vitamins, calcium, iron, etc.) are also shown, but they might be suppressed if they are zero.
Look at the serving size
When looking at nutrition labels, one is tempted to rush immediately to look at the calories; but, instead, the first thing you should focus on, is the serving size.
According to the Federal Regulation “The term serving or serving size means an amount of food customarily consumed per eating occasion by persons 4 years of age or older which is expressed in a common household measure that is appropriate to the food.”
The question you should ask yourself is: how many servings a certain food contains?
Let’s say that you’re planning on eating a whole bag of chips that contains 3 servings, then all the numbers listed on the label should be multiplied times 3. Not so appealing anymore?
Scan for the rest...
Keeping the serving size in mind, you can now scan for the rest.
Food labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. You might need more or less depending on your age, weight, gender and activity level.
This means that the percentage number that you see on the label might be really far away from what your body actually needs.
In fact the percentage figure can most of the times be misleading as it’s way too generic.
The more important things you should keep an eye on are the grams of: saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar. And you want to choose foods that are low in these figures.
The trans fat controversy
In the labels, amounts are rounded to the nearest 0.5 g, and amounts less than 0.5 g are rounded to 0 g.
This particular issue has raised a lot of criticisms, because products containing 0.45 g of trans fat per serving are labeled as having 0 g of trans fat, leading to the belief that that particular food is trans fat free.
As there’s nothing we can about this (besides asking for a new regulation), if we suspect that a product might contain hidden trans fat we can always resort to our friends Nutritiondata for getting the whole truth about it.
Here’s the snapshot of the nutrition facts of a famous candy bar. As you can notice the consumer might be induced to think that it’s trans fat free since the label lists 0 g under such item. But, in fact, that’s not true...
Focus on nutrition labels not health claims
In addition to the nutrition label, products may display certain nutrition information or health claims on packaging. These claims are not necessarily regulated and do not have to adhere to industry standards.
They should be considered like ads and you should not give too much value to them.
Reading nutrition labels is very important
A newly published research in the Agricultural Research journal suggests that people who read nutrition labels are much more healthier than people who do not.
The researchers found a significant difference between consumers that read labels and those that do not. The results indicated that the body mass index of those consumers who read that label is 1.49 points lower than those who never consider such information when doing their food shopping.
Furthermore, a study from the University of Minnesota found that only aroud 1 out of 10 consumer in the US actually looks at calorie count, and only 1% looks at the other components (total fat, trans fat, sugar, and serving size) on almost all labels.
Knowing what you’re eating is a crucial component of being healthy and reading nutrition labels is vital if you want to know what you’re actually eating.
Keep an eye on them and you’ll be much better off.