Reading Food Labels
Reading Between the Lines
to put the right nutrients into our body is hard enough without
having to try to figure out what foods are actually good for us. To
better assist you in your task, the following text will attempt to
clarify many of the misconceptions and pitfalls a fitness enthusiast
encounters attempting to consume a healthy diet. The margin for
error can be very high if some specific guidelines are not
asked, most physically active persons will assume that they, for the
most part, eat a balanced, healthy diet. Of this group almost
everyone honestly believes that for the majority of the time their
diet is very healthy. The problem arises when these diets are
analyzed for nutrient content. Often they are much higher in sugar,
fat, and calories then the consumer realizes, which is usually
compounded by a lack of vitamins and minerals.
attempt to help reduce this problem, Congress passed the Nutritional
Labeling and Education Act in 1990. These regulations became
mandatory for all processed foods in 1994. The goal of the labeling
act was to increase awareness of consumers to the nutrients, or lack
there of, contained in foods. The primary objective of the
legislation was to ensure that labels would be on most foods and
provide consistent information about the nutritional contents. The
FDA sets limitations to health claims that may appear on the label,
as well as serving size and specific terminology
with these regulations many consumers, including fitness
enthusiasts, fall prey to marketing and unsubstantiated nutritional
trends. Before identifying these particular obstacles to the lean
body, it is important to develop a clear understanding of what the
"Nutritional Facts" really are. The formatted space on every label
is called, conveniently enough, Nutritional Facts. It includes
specific required information and optional information, which can be
included at the food-maker's discretion. The following items, listed
as amount per serving, must be included on the food
- Total Calories
- Calories from Fat
- Total Fat
- Saturated Fat
- Total Carbohydrates
- Dietary Fiber
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
Sometimes the food processor will add ingredients to make the
food more appealing and marketable. For instance foods may state
that they have heightened nutrient quality because they are
fortified or enriched. If a product is fortified, it means the
nutrient was found in lower amounts, or was never there, and had to
be added to the food product. Milk is often fortified with vitamin
D. Enriched means that the nutrient is there at the beginning of the
food processing but is lost or reduced, so it is added back after
the processing has occurred. Bread is often enriched with B
vitamins. A common trend is for food makers to add nutrients the
general public recognizes as important to increase the product's
marketability. Cereals, dairy products, and even orange juice are
fortified with iron, vitamin C, or calcium. This not only helps sell
more food but can aid consumers in meeting their nutritional
different body sizes, genetic factors, and activity states, everyone
has different nutrient requirements. The values given on the food
labels are based on a 2000 kcal diet. They indicate percentages of
the total daily intake based on current RDAs. For instance, if the
fat content were 13 grams, it would fulfill 20% of the fat
requirement for that 2000 kcal diet (RDA 30% or 600 kcal/day). This,
though, can be misleading to consumers, especially persons who are
physically active. Very few active men require only 2000 kcals a
day, so following this regimen of food consumption would be
inappropriate. Instead it is wiser to use the nutrient content to
identify good sources of nutrients and modify the serving size for
your specific needs.
may sound easy enough but serving sizes open a whole new arena of
confusion. Generally, consumers have no idea about how large a
serving size really is. A perfect example of this is seen at
breakfast. The serving size for most cereals is 1 cup. Try this at
home: measure 1 cup of your favorite cereal and place it in your
favorite bowl. Laugh at the amount! Now add the necessary amount of
cereal to meet your regular breakfast size. Measure how much cereal
you end up with. Usually, it is three times the serving size on the
label. The good news is you get three times the nutrients; the bad
news is you also get three times the calories, fat, sodium,
cholesterol, and sugar.
common situation that results in diet problems is when we eat out.
Restaurants create menus based on making money, not necessarily for
your health. Assuming the portions are the same that you have read
on a similar food label is where most mistakes are made. A steak
dinner by label would be 3 oz. of steak, ½ cup string beans, and ½
cup potatoes. In a restaurant the actual meal would be 6-10 oz. of
steak, ¼ cup of green beans, and 1 cup of potatoes. The fat and
calories are very different in these two scenarios. Also, a
restaurant is not under the same watchful eye as food producers, so
they can call their entrees low fat, reduced calorie, etc. without
meeting the criteria that are listed in the following
often step right into this trap. Believing they get exactly what the
label reads they over consume calories. This practice often leads to
daily over consumption and a positive caloric balance. Every time
the positive balance adds up to 3500 calories, another 1lb of weight
gain occurs. In most cases the 1 lb is all fat. This is especially
true in fat-free foods. People believe that if it is low in fat or
void of fat, it can be consumed in any amount. This is one of the
many reasons technology has lead to reduced health.
label indicates a special health claim, it is subject to certain
scrutiny. For a food label to make specific claims, it must contain
at least 10% of the daily value of at least one of the following
nutrients: protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, or fiber.
On the opposite side, if they exceed 20% of the daily value for
total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium, they cannot make
any health claims.
descriptors also have to meet FDA standards. For specific claims to
be made, the serving of food must meet requirements defined by the
FDA. The following are examples of the most common
calorie means 40 kcal or less per serving.
- Calorie free means less than 5 kcal per serving.
fat means a food has no more than 3 grams of fat per serving or
per 100 grams of the food.
free means a food contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.
saturated fat means 1 gram or less of saturated fat per
cholesterol means 20 mg or less of cholesterol per serving.
- Cholesterol free means less than 2 mg of cholesterol per
added sugar means no sugar or sweeteners added.
sodium means less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
low sodium means less than 35 mg of sodium per serving.
food descriptors are not regulated and can be misleading. For
instance, "Lite" can describe color. These descriptors can cause you
to believe the food is actually much better for you than it is. To
identify what nutrient content the product has, simply analyze what
nutrients are contained per serving size and how that serving size
fits into your diet.
information can be used to aid in the construction and maintenance
of a healthy diet. Paying attention to what we put into our bodies
is extremely important. To attain lean physiques, greater
musculature and lifetime health, we must follow a diet rich in
nutrients and low in fat. Identifying problem areas is the first
step to solving most diet obstacles. If we routinely monitor our
nutrient intake, we can better reach our training goals and maintain
Brian holds a Masters in Exercise
Physiology and has earned a Doctorate in Sports Medicine. Mr.
Biagioli is Director of Education for the National Council of
Strength & Fitness and is recognized nationally for
contributions and excellence in the field of Strength and Fitness.
Brian is also a certified Olympic Weight Lifting Coach.