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Learning to Read Food Labels

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Low fat! Sugar free! Low carb! Reduced fat! What does it all mean?

With the millions of claims on your grocer's shelf, you'd think we live in a wonderland of healthy, guilt-free foods. Fat-free chocolate frozen yogurt sounds yummy. Why not? It's good for you, right?

Wrong. Fat free doesn't mean healthy. And it sure doesn't mean sugar free. Odds are, your creamy, supposedly healthy, miracle food is loaded with sugar.

But how are you supposed to know that? The label says it's fat free! How can they manipulate you like that? Aren't there laws keeping food manufacturers on the up-and-up?

Well, yes, there are, but manufacturers are spin masters. Much like tabloid headlines, food packaging isn't designed to inform; it's designed to distort the truth so you'll pick it up. However, where tabloids can continue the charade page after page, once you turn over food packaging, the distortion comes to an abrupt halt. Behold your secret weapon against dodging food manufacturers—the Nutrition Facts box.

Oreo Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 34g
Servings per package 15
Amount Per Serving
Calories 160.0000 Calories from Fat 60.0000
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 7.0000g   11 %
Saturated Fat 1.5000g   7 %

Cholesterol 0mg   0 %
Sodium 210.0000mg   9 %
Total Carbohydrate 24.0000g   8 %
Dietary Fiber 1.0000g   4 %
Sugars 13.0000g  

Protein 2.0000g  
Amount Per Serving
Calories 160.0000 Calories from Fat 60.0000
% Daily Value*
Vitamin A 0%   Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 0%   Iron 8%
Percent Daily Values

To learn a little more about the box, let's have a look-see at that perennial favorite, the Oreo cookie. The first thing we'll look at is the serving size: 3 cookies. Sounds good. I don't know a lot of Oreo eaters who stop at three, but now we know that everything we read on this chart is based on three cookies.

Sometimes, a company can get a little sneaky with this—case in point, the "serving size" of a 20-ounce bottle of Coke. If you look at the nutritional facts, you discover that they're meant for an 8-ounce serving. That is to say, one bottle is intended to be split between two and a half people. Nobody does this, in part because half people aren't generally interested in soft drinks. A superficial read of the label leaves you thinking you're drinking 100 calories when, in fact, you're quaffing 250 calories of High-Fructose Corn Syrup.

But I digress. Back to the Oreos. Your three cookies are 160 calories. Of this 160, around 60 are fat, 94 are carbohydrates, and 2 are protein. Those of you into math may notice these numbers don't follow the exact calculation of multiplying the grams into calories. That's because within reason, companies can round these numbers off, but now we're splitting hairs.

Let's start by looking at the fat. Just what kind of fat are we going to find? For that, we'll skip down a line.

There are four kinds of fat: saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. As you probably know, the first two are bad and the last two are good. Currently, the FDA requires that only saturated fat be listed, so we see that of the 7g of fat, 1.5g are saturated. But hold on, what about the remaining 5.5g? Is it happy unsaturated fat or evil processed trans fat? Fortunately, as of January 1, 2006, food manufacturers will be required to list trans fat as well, but until then, we're forced to pop down to the listed ingredients and do a little guesswork.

Ingredients are listed in amounts, from most to least, so here we see Oreos are, surprisingly, made primarily of sugar. Bad, sure, but not a source of fat. Next comes enriched flour. Also bad, but also not fat. Next comes partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Bingo—there's your fat right there—and evil trans fat, in fact, so it's safe to assume that some of that unaccounted-for 5.5g is trans fat. (The actual number, FYI, is 2.5g of trans fat.)

To the right of all these numbers, you'll notice more numbers with percentage signs next to them. This is the percentage of the amount of that nutrient you should be getting daily, based a 2,000-calorie diet. It's probably the most complicated part of the box. First off, not everyone eats 2,000 calories a day. So if you eat more, or less, you'll have to do a little math.

Secondly, for the total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium percentages, you should be eating that or less than that. (That said, our suggestion is to treat the total fat and sodium percentages as a number you target, not consume less than.) For total carbohydrates, you should be having that more-or-less exactly.

For all the vitamins and minerals and dietary fiber, you should be having at least that much.

You'll also notice that some labels include additional information. The FDA requires that all food labels list total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. However, there are a host of other nutrients that the food manufacturer can opt to list, such as polyunsaturated fat, potassium, soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, sugar alcohol, and other essential vitamins and minerals. Odd, you say? I thought so, too.

Our next stop is cholesterol. There are plenty of claims out there that eating good cholesterol will lower our bad cholesterol. These are largely unproven. Evidence may, in time, become more concrete, but for now, avoiding any cholesterol is the best course of action. The body makes all the good cholesterol you need without you trying to add more. Oreos have no cholesterol.

After that is sodium. As we suggested above, you need sodium, especially if you're on a sweaty, difficult exercise program, so try to treat this as an amount to aim for. That said, very few people need to actively seek out sodium. Just eat a balanced diet and it will find you. Our three cookies have 210mg of sodium, or 9% of the recommended daily allowance.

Next come carbs. This is a somewhat vague section of the Nutrition Facts box. While listing total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and sugars is mandatory, listing sugar alcohol and complex carbs is not. In fact, there is no listing for complex carbs, only the mysterious heading "other carbohydrates." It's a rare label indeed that really spells out a food's carbohydrate breakdown.

Although our Oreos have no sugar alcohol, let's discuss the stuff for a minute. Sugar alcohol is naturally occurring in the body and, at this writing, its only real problem is the occasional gastrointestinal difficulty. If the box doesn't specifically list sugar alcohols, you can look for them in the ingredients—they usually have the suffix "-itol."

Keep in mind that sugar alcohol isn't, as often advertised, guilt-free sweetness. While other carbohydrates have 4 calories to the gram, sugar alcohol still has about 1.5 or 2 calories per gram. The rest is made of indigestible matter, hence the reason for gastric problems.

Looking at our Oreos, we don't see any "-itol" ingredients. However, the second ingredient is enriched flour, so it's safe to assume that the unaccounted-for 10g of carbohydrates are complex.

One neat thing you can do in the carb part of the Nutrition Facts box is determine if a food will cause a sugar spike. Although protein and fat slow sugar absorption, fiber does the best job, so if your fiber's high, you're in better shape. Oreos have 1g of fiber, so it looks like spike city.

Finally, protein. Our Oreos have 2g of protein. Unfortunately, the box doesn't list whether this is a complete protein or not, so you'll have to look at the ingredients and bone up on protein sources. The last ingredient in our Oreos is whey, so some of that protein is probably complete, albeit there's not enough to add to your nutritional profile for the day.

After this, the box goes into vitamins and minerals. Oreos don't have much, save a little iron from the enriched flour.

See? Labels are not all that tough. Now you're empowered. They can throw all the claims at you they want, but you're not going to fall for them because you're now a label reader!

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