Making sense of confusing nutrition labels

02/03/2014 12:00 AM

02/03/2014 1:48 PM

Health advocates are crossing their fingers that nutrition labels on the back of food packages may get easier to interpret in the not-so-distant future. And it’s a change, they say, that’s been a long time coming.

While our nutrition know-how has evolved and progressed considerably during the past two decades, officials with the Food and Drug Administration say nutrition labels haven’t exactly kept up with the times. The general consensus among national health experts, nutrition counselors and even nutrition-conscious consumers is that, despite providing plenty of details about the contents of our food, labels and ingredient lists are often confusing and — quite frankly — hard to understand.

“There’s a feeling that nutrition labels haven’t been as effective as they should be,” said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “When you look at the label, there are roughly two dozen numbers of substances that people aren’t intuitively familiar with.”

Nicole Chase, co-founder of Urban Nutrition, LLC, a Fort Worth corporate nutrition and wellness consulting firm, said some consumers feel intimidated when they read labels, “almost like suffering from information overload.” She added: “Many people are not sure what nutrients they should be focusing on and as a result, are avoiding reading the labels altogether.”

Noting a similar response among her medical patients, Dr. Mary Cox, a Fort Worth endocrinologist, points to a four-letter word — “gram” — as a major root of the problem. She said the longtime practice of listing nutrient amounts in grams, the metric system’s basic unit of mass, is a major drawback for folks who want to improve their dietary habits because consumers typically aren’t familiar with how grams correlate to what we put on our plates.

“Most people don’t really understand what a gram is in terms of what it means to their diets,” she said. “… Unless you’re really good at math or used to using percentages and forms of measurement like grams in your day-to-day life, it doesn’t seem very pertinent. We don’t measure things we eat in grams, as a general rule. So, I think that’s pretty frustrating for people.”

The big picture

While waiting for more clarity to appear in the marketplace and on future food product labels, local nutrition experts have plenty of tips for folks who want to eat better now.

Chase, as a registered and licensed dietitian, said purchasing food simply based on marketing buzzwords and lively packaging is almost always a bad idea, and noted that shoppers need to “take in the big picture when reading food labels rather than focusing on one or two specific nutrients alone.”

“Just because a particular food product is low in fat, doesn’t mean that it is low in calories or sugar,” she explained. “If you’re trying to eat more healthfully, review the label in it’s entirety to see if it has the qualities you are looking for and is low in the nutrients you are trying to limit.”

Serving sizes are another problem area, and both national and local nutrition experts warn that many single-size servings that are clearly meant to be eaten in one sitting frequently are segmented into two to three servings instead — which makes the calorie and nutrient information appear deceptively low.

“I really don’t know why serving size information often seems so un-interpretable,” Cox said, “but this needs to change. Listing the number of calories in a serving of chips is one thing, but listing the number of calories in a definitive amount — like 10 chips — that would be so much more relevant and helpful.”

Similarly, Jacobson of the CSPI has suggested that the FDA require that information about sugar be listed in teaspoons, as well as grams, since a teaspoon is both a practical and familiar form of measurement.

When counseling clients at Urban Nutrition, Chase said, she always encourages reading the serving size on a food product first because, unlike the popular old adage, “ignorance is not bliss.”

“Forgetting to look at the serving size can result in getting more calories than the person originally bargained for,” she said. “Take soda for instance. The amount per serving often listed on a 20-ounce bottle of soda typically contains around 100 calories. What many consumers don’t realize is that there are 2.5 servings in that bottle they are drinking, which means they are consuming two-and-a-half times the amount of calories. That’s 250 calories, not 100 calories.”

Best advice for dieters

Many of Cox’s patients hope to lose weight to help address medical conditions like diabetes, and she said caloric information is not something to be ignored.

“If they want to lose weight, they need to look at the calories in the package, and how many they’re consuming,” she said. “They may want to know about things like what types of fat are in it or what percentages of carbohydrates and protein it has, but if the central goal is weight loss, the calories are key.”

Chase recommended avoiding “information overload” and getting a better handle on what you’re eating by using the Daily Value Percentage, which identifies whether a food product is high or low in a specific nutrient.

“A Daily Value of 5 percent or less is considered low, while a Daily Value of 20 percent or greater is considered high,” she says. “The key nutrients that most people should try to keep low for maintaining heart health are the total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. Aim for 20 percent or greater for fiber, vitamins and minerals.”

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