10 Things You Didn’t Know about Food Labels

I’m old enough to remember the days before the Nutrition Facts labels. It was 1990 when George H. W. Bush signed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act into law. I may have only been eight years old at the time, but I remember those little black and white rectangles suddenly showing up on food packages (about the time Beauty and the Beast came out, according a child’s powers of association). Now, though, it’s hard to fathom a time when consumers didn’t have access to information about the nutritional contents of their purchased foods (and, come to think of it, a time before Be Our Guest couldn’t get stuck in my head for days on end…). I certainly rely on label reading to be sure I purchase the healthiest, safest, least processed foods as reasonably possible for my family. Obviously, the best diet would be heavy in foods that don’t come with a Nutrition Facts label–fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs straight from a local chicken, etc.–but even the most devoted whole-foods-dieter has to break down and buy some M & Ms sometimes, right?

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…(these bread crumbs were the worst thing I found in my pantry).

As I’ve pursued my interest in food and nutrition through lots of reading and taking some dietetics courses, I’ve gained some inside info on the whole Nutrition Facts game. Here are several things I didn’t know until recently. Stick with me as I let you in on the secrets…

10 Things You Didn’t Know about Food Labels

1. 2% or less: Seen this one before? I used to (blissfully ignorantly) assume that everything on the giant list following this phrase comprised 2% or less of the total contents of the product. Nope. “2% or less of the following” means 2% of each of the ingredients listed. Therefore, if 15 ingredients come after this phrase, up to 30% of the product could be contained in this list. Yikes. Also, for these lists there is an exception to the rule that ingredients be listed in descending order by weight. So once you see that 2%, it’s pretty much a free-for-all.

2. “Natural flavors”: You’d think that “natural” flavor was preferable to “artificial” flavor, right? After all, I’d rather eat a natural chicken than some artificial robot chicken, wouldn’t you? Well, come to find out, “natural” flavors are not as straightforward as all that. Under the Code of Federal Regulations, “natural” can mean anything derived from a natural source, such as plant or animal products (as in, not derived from chemicals). This provides a pretty wide range–as this article puts it, “from bugs to beaver butts.” Literally. Castoreum is extracted from beavers’ anal glands, and certain food dyes are insect-derived. But it’s natural!

3. Trans fat loophole: If a food contains .5 grams or less of trans fat per serving, the Nutrition Label can round it down to zero. That means if a product with, let’s say, .45 grams of trans fat has five servings, eating the entire container means you have consumed 2.25 grams of trans fat. Research has repeatedly shown that even a modest intake of trans fats significantly raises the risk of cardiovascular disease. The thing to remember is that trans fats occur when fats are hydrogenated, so if the ingredient list includes anything “hydrogenated,” it contains trans fats.

4. Don’t be afraid of everything with a long and/or unfamiliar name. Yay, something positive! Mixed tocopherols, for example, which you often see in cereal ingredient lists, are simply Vitamin E. Then again, L-cysteine, used in breads and other baked goods, is a frequently made from duck feathers or human hair….and the sodium benzoate in your soda is used as rocket fuel. So just do your research.

5. Soluble and insoluble fiber: Some Nutrition Facts labels offer the extra details of a food’s fiber–how many grams of soluble or insoluble it contains. What’s the difference between the two? Soluble fiber is, as it sounds, dissolvable in water. This means it can bind fat to help lower cholesterol, as well as reduce high blood glucose. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not dissolve in water–so it’s certainly not gonna dissolve in your intestines. This is a good thing, though, as this is the fiber that absorbs fluid as it makes its way through your digestive tract. Translation: this is the one you need more of if you suffer from The Big Block-up.

6. Sneaky sugar: Sugar is sugar is sugar. You may pat yourself on the back as you consider how those Kashi granola bars use brown rice syrup instead of high fructose corn syrup, but keep in mind that’s still sugar. The sugar wolf has many sheep’s disguises. Alternate names for sugar include: maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, evaporated cane juice, crystalline fructose, sorghum, and barley malt syrup.

7. Courtesy calculations: The Nutrition Facts label has a couple of what I call “courtesy calculations,” meaning that you can actually calculate these figures on your own. Calories from fat, for instance, mean (of course) how many calories per serving are provided by fat in the food. If you happen to know that 1 gram of fat, regardless of the type, contains 9 calories per gram, you will always be able to determine this yourself. Go check your pantry. Every “calories from fat” figure is approximately 9 times the grams of fat listed.

The second courtesy calculation falls under the carbohydrate figure. You may be aware that sugars are carbohydrates and contribute to the final carb tally on the Nutrition Facts label. (As in, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re getting 15 grams of whole grain carbs when a cereal’s label says “15g carbs” if that cereal also contains 12 grams of sugar.) If you subtract the grams of sugar from the total grams of carbohydrate, what remains is your carbs from starches (like hopefully whole grain).

8. Why alcohol doesn’t have Nutrition Facts: The reason alcohol doesn’t have to have Nutrition Facts labels is that is it under the jurisdiction of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, not the FDA. Keep in mind, though, that the average 5 oz glass of wine has 120 calories and the average beer has 150 calories.

9. Why some labels include things like magnesium and phosphorus and others don’t: It always seems kinda random to me when I see a food label touting its percentage of vitamin K, zinc, or pantothenic acid (What the heck is pantothenic acid?). Well, this is because labeling of any micronutrients beyond Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, and iron is totally voluntary. Products that flaunt their riboflavin all up in your face are just showing off…in a good way.

10. Nutrition Facts font: Okay, last one is a bit of trivia just for fun. The FDA doesn’t require a particular font/typeface to be used, so theoretically, companies could get creative and someday you might see a label in Comic Sans or everyone’s favorite adorable girly font, “Curlz.” Like this:

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1/2 cup
Servings per container 2
Eat me! I’m ADORABLE!!!

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