It’s hard to believe and even harder to remember, but not so long ago most foods didn’t have nutrition labels. They became mandatory in 1990, thanks largely to the anti-fat madness that infected medicine and nutrition through the 1980s, ‘90s, and first decade of the 21st century.
Officially, nutrition labels were intended to help consumers make “healthy” (read, lower-fat) choices when buying food. They listed the calories per serving, the grams of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat—especially fat, which got broken down into 3 different categories), total sugar content, and amounts of a few key vitamins and minerals the government deemed especially important. It was a great idea, in theory. But like so many good ideas, it didn’t quite work out as planned. Because while food manufacturers were required to list the calorie count per serving, they didn’t have to list the calories for the entire package. And even though they do have to tell us how many servings are in a package, it’s often confusing.
Nutritional labels make it easy to overeat
Take soft drinks, for example. 20-ounce bottles are now the standard packaging size. Now, most people drink the entire bottle without a second thought. One bottle, one person, one serving. Right? The calories listed in the calorie count are what you’ll consume if you drink the entire botte…right?
Not so fast. While some drinks do list the serving size as 1 bottle, others tell us a serving is 8 ounces—which means 1 bottle is actually 2.5 “servings.” Which means that, if you’re not paying attention, you’ll be drinking more than twice the calories you thought you were.
We see the same thing with many other products; we buy what we think is an individual serving based on the size of the package—such as a 1.5-oz. “snack size” bag of potato chips. We assume that it’s one serving…but we’re often wrong. That 1.5-oz. bag of chips, for example, is actually 1.5 servings. The nutritional label does tell us this--but the package size leads us to think we don’t need to read the label.
So how do you know what you’re actually eating? Let’s take a look at the standard nutrition label and see how well you understand it.
What YOU need to know about nutritional labels
The most basic label lists the serving size of the food, often by both weight and some other measurement such as number of pieces. This is usually followed by the size of the serving in grams.
- Serving size 2 cookies (128 g)
- Serving size ½ package (about 21 pieces)
(And the definition of “serving” is up to the manufacturer; Company A may consider 2 cookies a “serving,” while Company B may limit it to 1 and Company C may expand it to 4.)
After the serving size, it tells us the number of servings per package or container.
- Servings Per Package 9
The next item is the calorie count per serving. This is always the third listing—first serving size, then number of servings, then calories per serving—but small things such as the size of the print used in each section can be subtly misleading. Some packages list the serving size and number of servings in small print, while printing the calorie count in large, bold type. If we’re just scanning the label and not paying attention, we may end up thinking the calorie count is for the entire container. That is not, however, the case. “Calories” always refers to the calories per serving.
These three portions of the label don’t vary—and they’re the most important parts.
The rest of the label is supposed to tell us about the nutrient content of the food inside the package…and it does, but usually not in any meaningful way. Labels are only required to list the amount of a handful of nutrients. Currently that includes:
- Fat (which must list saturated fat separately)
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
and—even though it’s not a nutrient, and even though the link between dietary cholesterol and high cholesterol has been debunked—cholesterol. Beyond that, food manufacturers can list the content for as many or as few vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients as they wish, though few do.
Fat is broken down into total grams of fat, grams of saturated fat, and calories from fat—a holdover from the low-fat madness days. Some manufacturers even take it a step further and list the amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats too.
Carbohydrate is broken down into total grams of carbohydrate, dietary fiber, and sugar--but we’re not told if this is naturally-occurring sugar or added sugar.
As for vitamins A and C, calcium and iron, we’re not told the actual amount—such as mg—in the food we’re eating. Instead we’re given this information as a percentage of the “daily value” based on the mythical 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. All this gives us more information than we need on one hand, and far less than we need on the other.
And it’s about to get more confusing.
Out with the old, in with the new
In 2016, the FDA made changes to the nutrition labeling system. Some of them are good changes—calories and servings will be listed in large, bold print, for example, and vitamins and minerals must be shown in actual units such as mg or IU. Added sugar must also be listed separately. Beyond that, however, the changes are not very helpful.
We still get the “2,000 calorie per day diet.” Fat is still dissected, though the “calories from fat”—arguably the most relevant fat fact—has been removed. And while vitamin D and potassium have been added to the list of nutrients, vitamins A and C have been dropped. Basically we still have a label that gives us little relevant information beyond the amount of calories, fat, protein, and carbs.
But the biggest problem with the new nutritional label rollout is this: food manufacturers have until 2018 to comply with the new labeling laws. Small companies have even longer. Some companies are already using the new labels, while others will wait till the last moment. In the meantime, we have a doubly-confusing mix of new and old labels which will continue for several years.
So what’s the takeaway about nutritional labels? Are they really relevant? Should we bother with reading them?
Do you really need to read the nutritional label?
Yes. Before you pull out your wallet at the grocery store, before you put a food in your mouth, you should read the nutrition label. And you should pay close attention. Because mixed in with the useless information (how many mg is 10% of the DV for vitamin C, anyway?) is information that can have a serious impact on your health. There are 5 important facts on every label:
- The calories in each serving
- The size of a serving
- The grams of carbs, total fat, and protein
- The amount of sugar
- And, at least on the new labels, how much of this is added sugar
Now, most of us aren’t very good at estimating how many calories we’re eating. We need those labels to help us steer clear of high calorie foods. We’re also not very good at estimating portions and, like it or not, most package serving sizes are more in line with “healthy” portions than what we tend to serve ourselves.
Nutritional labels can also help us strike the right carb/fat/protein balance. And of course, having added sugars openly listed will be a godsend to anyone trying to avoid diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other chronic lifestyle conditions. So read your nutritional labels, and pay attention not just to calorie counts but to serving size.