Understanding Food Labels

June 4 2020

Kate Coughlan and Cate Moriasi

In normal times, grocery shopping for me was like any other shopping experience. I had no list, no plan and perused the isles while grabbing items that looked good. I had no worries as the grocery store was a few miles from my house and if need be, I could always stop by again after work. Meal prep for us was on a day by day basis depending on what we had in the house and what we were willing to stop and get.  Having said that, in normal times I was not panicked, and I read food labels for salt content and other nutritional value. This all changed during the pandemic both for the good and bad. During the beginning parts of this pandemic, my food shopping was a mission. I made a list and organized it by isles, skipping those isles that were not the list. I was quick, grabbing items without looking at the food labels and hoping for the best.  On the plus side, the pandemic made me meal plan and not shop haphazardly, thereby picking junk food I did not need, on the negative side I ignored food labels. As things appear to be calming down, I have found that grocery shopping during the pandemic taught me two important lessons: 1. Take the time to look at food labels and 2. Make a shopping list.   Below are hints and cautions when reading a food label that I have learned over the years.

With regards to the food labels what do I look for and what have I learned over the years about food labels?  The food label is mandatory per the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). The major categories on a food label include: Serving size, Calories and amount per serving, Total Carbs, Sugars, Added Sugars, Fiber, Fats (Saturated, Unsaturated and Trans fat), sodium, list of ingredients, and %DV.


https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/new-nutrition-facts-label https://www.diabetes.org/nutrition/understanding-food-labels/making-sense-of-food-labels

Serving size:

The serving size is the most important components as the nutritional parameters are based on it. This can also cause issues for buyers, because if one does not pay attention to the serving size, calories, salt, fats and carbohydrates may add up quickly. Let’s take a look at the example below.  At first glance the label draws your attention to the calories which state 25.  You think to yourself, that is not too bad, 25 calories, especially when you look at a bag of potato chips which have a 160 calories. 

The food label for the olives has a total fat content of 2.5 g whereas in the chips the total fat is 10 g. According to the labels neither contain trans fat, and the saturated fat is 0.5 g in olives vs. 1.5 g in chips.  Looking at the sodium content, the olives have 230 mg whereas the chips have 170 mg. As expected, the chips have carbohydrates whereas the olives do not.

Total Fat2.5 g10 g
Sodium230 mg170 mg
Total Carbohydrates0 g15 g

However, this comparison is not taking into account the serving size!  Let’s say you eat 15 chips and 15 olives, what will the numbers look like if we take into account serving size.

Amount you eat  1515
Serving size415415
Total Fat2.5 g10 g9.375 g10 g
Sodium230 mg170 mg862.5 mg170 mg
Total Carbohydrates  0 g15 g

To calculate this, take the number of olives eaten and divide by the serving size (15/4 = 3.75). Then multiply all the food label amounts by 3.75 to get the actual nutritional value (red text). WOW!  Because the values were based on such a low serving size (4) eating more than 4 olives can really increase the calories, fat and sodium levels that you consume.  Of particular note is that now the 15 olives no longer have the attractive 25 calories, and the fat content is now similar to the same amount of potato chips. Although realistically, who eats just 15 potato chips!  What is really astounding is the sodium levels. The 230 mg was high to begin with but eating more than 4 really increased this to levels that may be concerning especially for those with high blood pressure.  The main point is to make sure you do not get taken in by the large bold text that claims the calories as one must take into account serving size!  

Total Carbohydrates:

 The food labels below are from sourdough and multigrain bread.  The serving size is the same at 1 slice although the sourdough bread (32 g) is a bit more food compared to the multigrain bread (27 g).

Let’s take a look at the total carbohydrates which is 15 g for the sourdough and 12 g for the multigrain.  If you look at the label, the components under the total carbohydrates do not add up. Why?

Total Carbohydrates15 g13 g
       Dietary Fiber1 g1 g
       Total Sugars0 g2 g
           Includes added sugars0 g2 g

The total carbohydrate include the fiber (listed above), Sugars (both natural and added, with specific amount of added sugar), and starch (https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/added-sugars-new-nutrition-facts-label#:~:text=1.,to%20eat%20in%20a%20day). The remaining carbohydrates in the total once you subtract fiber and sugars is that of starch.  Starch is a polysaccharide that consists of many sugar molecules that are held together by chemical bonds. The total sugars listed are the natural sugars along with the added sugars, and the added sugars are specific amount added to the food.  For the multigrain bread the total sugar content is 2 g with all 2 g coming from added sugar and none coming from natural sugars.

The reform to the Nutrition Facts label by the FDA required that the amount of and percent Daily Value for Added Sugars be declared. This was to enable consumers to construct diets more consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This change was in response to an acknowledgement that Americans on average are consuming Added Sugars in amounts that exceed recommended limits.

It’s possible that America’s sweet tooth has developed over the years as sugar has increasingly been added to more foods. This increase has seemed to parallel an increase in all sorts of health problems and currently there is plenty of evidence that added sugars play a significant role in these problems.

We probably all know that once one develops a sweet tooth, the habit is very hard to break. Cate and I’s goal through these posts and the book we have written is to help children who are still at an impressionable age get information that can help them make simple choices that would help them adopt lifestyles that would reduce the burden on chronic diseases later in life. Our book, Atherosclerosis Attack, uses a story to help children see how what they choose to eat, like sugar affects a real disease. If you have not yet obtained a copy for your younger loved one, we encourage you to obtain one from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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