Monday, October 18, 2010

Reading Nutrition Facts Labels

With obesity increasing at alarming rates, partly due to the proliferation of man-made processed foods that contain overdoses of fat, refined sugar and salt, reading and understanding nutrition labels has never been more important. The Jeff Novick, RD  presentation on "Health Food" vs. Healthy Food -- How to read labels is an excellent presentation on the subject. 

There was a time when reading nutrition labels was not an important skill.  Why?  Because most of our food came out of the garden, or from meats that were not canned, packaged or produced on factory farms.  With the growth of  man-made food industries nutrition facts labels became important, and, in fact, required by the federal government.  Companies that package our foods add all sorts of chemicals and enhancers to increase shelf life.  They also artificially "enhance" the flavors and colors of their products.  The goal is to make processed foods more appealing, and in some cases more addicting,  so we will keep coming back for more, thus increasing their profits.

The job of deciphering the messages on food packages and "nutrition facts" labels is not easy.  The food manufacturers use packages to entice us to buy their products, not provide us with nutrition information.  Take a look at the front of packaged foods and you will see marketing wizardry.  Terms like "fat free," "whole grains," "made from real fruit," "natural," and "pure" adorned with appealing colors, pictures of family farms, and beautiful nature scenery.  Mr. Novick, in his presentations warns that we should never, ever believe the marketing that appears on the front of food packages.  In fact, don't even look at the front of a package.  Go directly to the nutrition facts labels.  Your job is to decipher that "actual" amount of fat, sodium, refined sugars, and refined carbohydrates.

Beware of nutrition facts labels also.  They are often very misleading.  For example, manufactures are, allowed to label a food as "fat free" if the fat content is considered to be a trace amount.  Pam, the "fat free" cooking spray has 0 grams of fat according to its label.  In fact, you get 1/2 gram of fat with a 1/2 second spray of Pam.  This is considered by the regulators to be a trace amount of fat.  Ever try to hold the spray to 1/2 second?  More than likely you are holding the spray on for several seconds and getting several grams of fat.

Speaking of fat, many processed foods are loaded with animal, vegetable and various man-made fats such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, margarine and shortening.  When looking at a label, a good rule of thumb is to only buy packaged foods that have less than 20% of its calories from the healthier end of the fat spectrum - monounsaturated fat (olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, nuts and seeds), polyunsaturated fat (vegetable oils, nuts and seeds), omega-3 fatty acids fish oils, flax seeds and walnuts.   It is best to avoid animal fats, minimize or eliminate all processed oils  and get your fats from whole plant foods (raw nuts, raw seeds, olives and avocados).

The average person gets 3,000 to 5,000 milligrams of sodium per day. Packaged foods are usually loaded with salt.  Marie Callander's frozen meal, Beef Tips in Mushroom Sauce contains 1330 mg of salt. High salt has been linked to high blood pressure and various chronic illnesses.  For optimal health we need only 250-500 milligrams of sodium per day.  Nutritional guidance on the subject is mixed.  From my research, consuming less than 1000 mg of salt per day is a good idea.  If your diet consists  of mainly whole plant foods with no processed foods and no added salt, you will probably be getting less than 500 mg of sodium per day.  Dr. John McDougall points out that most of the salt in our diet comes from cheese and processed foods.   To put things in proportion, one teaspoon of salt contains 2200 mg of sodium.  The soundest advice I have found about nutrition labels and sodium comes from Jeff Novick who advises that when looking at a nutrition label, the milligrams of sodium should be no more than equal to the calories per serving. So, for example, if a portion of food has 200 calories, the sodium content should be no more than 200 mg per serving.  

Sugar has acquired a bad name in the popular nutrition literature.  In fact, sugar from whole unrefined plant foods such as fruit is good for us.  When looking at a nutrition facts label avoid foods that show processed sugars as one of the top five ingredients.  Processed sugars include corn syrup, fructose, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and sugar.    Sugar that comes packaged naturally in whole plant foods  is good.  Sugar that has been extracted from its natural source, refined and concentrated is not so good.

In summary,  here are some good rules of thumbs for deciphering the information on food packages and nutrition facts labels:

  • Never believe the information on the front of a food package.
  • Choose foods that have 20%, or preferably less, of their calories from fat.  Choose foods that contain healthy fats (raw nuts, raw seeds, avocados and naturally cured olives).
  • The sodium content of packaged foods should follow the 1:1 rule, sodium content in milligrams should be no more than equal to the calorie content per serving.
  • Avoid refined sugar, processed carbs and bad fats.
My own approach is to avoid packaged foods entirely.  If a package of food requires a label to tell us what is included, I put it back on the shelf.  Exceptions are canned beans (low salt),  vegan soups (low salt),  frozen fruits and vegetables.    The healthiest foods are preferably organically grown and come fresh out of the garden or from the produce departments of your grocery store.  But, don't avoid fruits and vegetables because you can't find or afford organic.  It is better to eat non-organic fruits and vegetables than none at all.



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