Five big things that are wrong with the Nutrition Facts Label

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May 8, 2012 — May 8, 2012  — Google “how to read the Nutrition Facts Label” and you’ll get over two million results back from youtube, bloggers, big name places such as the Mayo Clinic and of course, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Mandatory on food labels since the early ’90s, with some tweaks over the years, the Nutrition Facts Label (NFL) is something that the FDA has been trying to hype the importance of for over a decade, even while trying to explain exactly what the heck it means.

The most comprehensive attempt to decipher this label is available from the FDA in the form of a hefty microsite containing NFL “programs and materials.” There you can find resources for kids and adults, as well as “educators, teachers, dietitians and health professionals,” which include a “spot the block” campaign for kids and “tweens” that features a  song called “Dishin’ the Nutrition Rap.”

But is information provided by the NFL so vital that it’s worth going through a virtual Rube Goldberg  maze of lessons to get the “facts” right?

Even if the NFL was easier to understand and more often used by consumers, all of the “facts” it contains are based on one, most often overlooked, piece of information – the “serving size.” Now a serving size, which often has very little resemblance to what is actually being consumed, is created using what’s called “reference amounts” from the FDA. These amounts are calculated by “food consumption surveys” and based on what a person would “customarily consume” in one sitting (which is apparently less than half of a 20 oz. bottle of Pepsi, or no more than 20 chips or two small macaroons).

Here are five big reasons the NFL isn’t the holy grail of nutrition information we’ve been led to believe:

1. All “sugars” are not created equal

This is "real" sugar. Organic or not, it can only come from sugar cane or sugar beets.

The “sugars” portion of the NFL includes fructose, glucose, lactose and sucrose, with no information as to what the source is – such as real sugar vs. high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – or if the “sugars” are naturally occurring or added. Plain milk, for example, contains 12 grams of “sugars,” and apple cider with no sweeteners added contains 30 grams. At the same time, an 8-ounce Pepsi that is made with high fructose corn syrup contains 28 grams.

To further the confusion, some beverages, such as Pepsi Next, which contain HFCS, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, claim to have 60 percent “less sugar” on the label, while Pepsi Throwback, which is made from natural cane or beet sugar, boasts about being “made with real sugar.”

The NFL also doesn’t give us any hint of how much fructose is in a product.

I asked Dr. Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center and professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, who has been studying fructose amounts in beverages, about his thoughts on the NFL “sugars” category.

“Since not all sugars are equal in things like sweetness and metabolic effects,” he said, “I strongly believe that the sugar composition should be defined on the label.” He added that such a distinction would be similar to consumers looking for different kinds of fats in foods. “Consumers now understand and look for differences in fat composition and know to avoid trans fats. I think the same should be true for fructose, and the only way a consumer can really know what’s in a food or beverage is for the sugars to be defined by their composition.”

2. The calorie amounts can be wrong

Even if you were to get the portion part figured correctly, the calorie count provided may be way off the mark,  A study at Tufts University found an average of 8 percent more calories than were listed on the NFL in selected frozen meals. One product, for example, Lean Cuisine shrimp and pasta had 20 percent more calories than reported on the package. Another diet dish, Weight Watchers lemon herb chicken, had 21 percent more calories than what the NFL claimed.

While not having correct caloric numbers on a package, especially a diet one, may seem careless, it appears that the FDA allows for a 20 percent margin of error in figuring such things. Wrong numbers were also found to be a common issue on restaurant websites, with the worst offender being Denny’s grits and butter, with the actual calorie count being 200 percent higher than what the restaurant chain listed.

3. Low salt numbers might mean more than just less sodium

Products, especially ones that are typically high in sodium such as soups, sauce, gravy and snack foods, that show low sodium numbers on the NFL may contain what I refer to as “tongue-tampering” ingredients – technically advanced laboratory concoctions that fool our brains into thinking we’re eating more salt than is really in the food.

Known as “salt enhancers” and made by a small number of high-tech companies around the world under different trade names, these chemicals have no taste of their own, but work by activating taste receptors on the tongue. You won’t see them in the supermarket or on the food label, but rather listed under the catch-all term “artificial flavorings,” or perhaps even “natural flavoring.”

Other types of  ‘taste altering’ chemicals are used for the purpose of enhancing sweet tastes and blocking bitter ones.


4. Where are the phytonutrients?

Health-promoting compounds found in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and teas are notably missing from the NFL. Without mention of these flavonoids and other healthful compounds, some foods may look like they have nothing to offer, when in fact they can be a treasure trove of important phytonutrients.

Grape juice, for instance, along with an NFL “sugars” listing of 36 grams for a one-cup serving, also contains scores of important phytonutrients not found in, say, a bottle of Coke that has a similar NFL.


5. Spending ‘store time’ reading the NFL distracts from the real deal

To find out what’s really in the food we buy, there’s only one place to look, – the actual ingredient label. Not as  eye-catching’ as the NFL, the ingredient label, while it does have its limitations, will at least tell you if the food item you’re looking at is something you’re really interested in consuming. It will tell you if the food is made with real sugar or HFCS, if those blueberries are real or just fake blueberry bits, if the product contains MSG or hidden MSG – in other words, the kinds of things you would never learn if your only checked out the NFL.

Another bonus of reading the true ingredient label is that once you see just how many additives and fake ingredients are in processed foods, you might start buying more “real” foods made with actual ingredients – or perhaps making them yourself.

The “facts” found on a Nutrition Facts Label are often the least relevant facts when it comes to understanding the actual nutritional value of the product involved – if, indeed, they are “facts” at all.