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Reading Food Labels

Food Labels
Reading Between the Lines

Trying 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 followed.

When 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.

In an 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 definitions.

Even 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 label.

  • Total Calories
  • Calories from Fat
  • Total Fat
  • Saturated Fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Total Carbohydrates
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Sugars
  • Protein
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron

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 needs.

Due to 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.

This 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.

Another 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 text.

Dieters 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.

If a 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.

Food 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 descriptors:

  • Low calorie means 40 kcal or less per serving.
  • Calorie free means less than 5 kcal per serving.
  • Low fat means a food has no more than 3 grams of fat per serving or per 100 grams of the food.
  • Fat free means a food contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.
  • Low saturated fat means 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Low cholesterol means 20 mg or less of cholesterol per serving.
  • Cholesterol free means less than 2 mg of cholesterol per serving.
  • No added sugar means no sugar or sweeteners added.
  • Low sodium means less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
  • Very low sodium means less than 35 mg of sodium per serving.

Some 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.

This 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 healthier lives.

About the Author
Brian Biagioli
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.

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