Eat This, Not That! Decoding the Food Label
Food labels were first made in United States around 1860s but were only in effect in 1990s. At that time, all processed food manufacturer were required to place this label on their products. Though not all foods are required to carry a nutrition labels but many markets voluntarily present such information.
Today, food labels have become important information for consumers to meet their nutrition and health goals. Reading food labels are important for those who are really keen on healthy diet. It helps us to determine foods that have nutritional value we need and enable us to avoid excessive intake of fat, salt and sugar as well as calories. Not to forget food label also enables us to compare two similar food products easily. Since we were urged to read this label every time we choose our food, how do we make sense of a food label?
Here are few steps you can do when choosing your food:
Check the Serving Size
Serving size tell the size of each serving. It can be in a measure of cups, and metric measures like gram or millitres. It can vary depending on the manufacturer. Therefore, before you compare foods from the same group, make sure the serving size of both products is the same. If both products are in different serving size, then the information could not be compared. However, the Ministry of Health Malaysia had set the rule where information per 100g is required. Thus, comparing two similar products is much easy using quantity per 100g.
We normally don’t get only one serving per container. Servings per container tell you how many servings the package contains. If the package contains ten rice crackers and the serving size of one serving is only two rice crackers, then the package contains a total of five servings. So, if you consumed the whole packet, you are consuming five servings already and all the calories together with nutrients including percent daily value have to be times five!
Be Careful with Calories
Calories are the measure of energy. Calories on food label show the total food energy and calories from fat are energy that come from fat alone. If the total calories are 80 and calorie from fat is 35, that means about 45% of the calories are from fat. Almost half of the component of the food product are fats!
Calorie-free products normally have calories fewer than 5 kcal per serving while low calorie products are 40 kcal or less per serving. If you see a product with “Reduced Calorie”, make sure they have at least 25% fewer calories per serving than the comparison food. Do not choose food based on its calories only. Some low calories foods often mean low nutrition too.
Read the FATS
Based on the recommended intake for a 2000 calorie diet, you need to limit your fat intake not more than 65g daily. Product with less than 0.5g fat per serving is considered fat free and those with 3g or less per serving are low fat product. Besides, information on fat usually comes with sub-listing for saturated fat and trans fat. Be careful with this fat as they are particularly bad for health. Their reading should be as close to zero as possible for a healthy diet. A saturated fat-free product has less than 0.5g saturated fat and trans fat per serving. Low saturated fats carry 1g or less saturated fat and 0.5g trans fat per serving. It is recommended to take not more than 20g of saturated fat daily.
Cholesterol and Sodium
Limit your cholesterol intake to not more than 300mg daily and sodium not more than 2400mg. Cholesterol-free products contain no more than 2mg per serving and 20mg or less cholesterol per serving is low.
The measures of sodium in food label tell how much salt is in the food you choose. People with high blood pressure or hypertension need low-salt diet. Foods that are described as low sodium must have sodium less than 5mg per serving.
Have More Vitamins and Minerals
The FDA requires all food producers to include the reading of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron and calcium in food labels. Since most diets are often deficient in these micronutrients, make sure the product you choose contains significant quantities. Some products are fortified with important micronutrients, choose the one that most suit your daily needs.
Percent Daily Value
Daily value also known as daily references value is the recommended daily amount of each nutrient in a serving. The values are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Comparing this value with the amount of nutrient found in the food make the numbers more meaningful. 5% daily value or less is considered low and 20% or more is considered high. For example, the daily value for calcium is 1000mg. If the food product you choose shows only 1mg of calcium which is insignificant, the daily value percentage will read “0%”. This shows that the product you choose is very low in calcium. In contrast, if the percentage daily value of iron in a product shows more than 5%, that means the amount of iron in that product is enough to be noticed and meets more than 5% of your daily iron requirement.
There is no daily value for sugar in food label. However, you can choose food by comparing the amount of sugar listed in the food label of two similar products. Choose the one with the lowest value. Nevertheless, this reading is the sum of both natural and added sugar. Therefore, we cannot determine whether the food product we choose is of added sugar or not by reading the amount alone. To determine whether the food product is of added sugar or not, read the ingredients list instead.
All items in the ingredients list are listed in decreasing order. Which mean, if you find the name of added sugar listed on first three items, the product is high in sugar and you should try avoiding this kind of food. Examples of added sugar are corn syrup, fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, sugar like fructose, glucose, sucrose and dextrose, honey, as well as syrup like brown rice syrup and malt syrup.