Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Food for Thought and other Words Wednesday: Food Labels

Today’s Food for Thought and other Words Wednesday is the topic of "Food Nutrition Facts" that you find on food product labels. I have been reading labels regularly since I started this journey, as I bet most of you have, too. Over the past four months, I must admit that I am in a state of confusion as I read the labels especially when I am trying to figure out how serving sizes are determined, calories, ingredients (this is a separate upcoming post) listed, etc. I went to the "mattresses" on this one. For me that means: experts. Here is what I found out: food manufacturers must tell you what is in their products, actually they are required by law to do this.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 was supposed to do something that was never done before: inform you about the calories, nutrients and ingredients on food packages, but also discourage you from eating foods that are higher in fat, encourage you to eat foods with nutrients like vitamin A, C, calcium, etc, give you an opportunity to compare the nutrition content of the particular food product with what you should be eating daily and FIT all that info on a label small enough to be printed on food packages. In fact a visit to the food label guide reveals the specifications for the food label text:

You would think that with all of those specifications the FDA would want the information contained in them to be as clear as the text specifications: NOT!!! According to Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the FDA, they are “so opaque or confusing that only consumers with the [interpretive]] abilities of a scholar can peel back the encoded layers of meaning.” The label is supposed to inform you about calories, nutrition, and ingredients, but also: discourage you from eating foods high in fat, encourage you to eat more foods with nutrients (like certain vitamins) missing in the average American diet, allow you to compare different food products together and of course FIT all that info on a side panel label (Nestle, M., 2006, p. 291). Of course, if the label was easy to understand you might say “no” to buying it.

The FDA conducted a number of studies as they worked toward designing that label. These studies reached a “complicated conclusion. People said they preferred the label formats that they actually understood the LEAST (emphasis added). The opposite was also true: the formats that were best understood were the ones least liked (p. 298: for more read: What to Eat, section on processed foods). As you have probably guessed this confusion has led to problems, especially when it comes to serving size. The FDA standards are very small for serving sizes in an effort to make the calories, fats, cholesterol, and sugars appear minimal and appease the vested industry of the food manufacturers and uphold the law (can you begin to see how complicated designing these labels is?). You can do the math: listing “average” serving sizes would of course increase all of these values. Translation: no one in his or her right mind would purchase the product.

Well, that is interesting, Michele, but what can we do as consumers to understand labels?

A couple of things: one, check out the Food Labels guide.

Second: check out the Center for Science in the Public Interest informative website.

Next link to their Nutrition Action links. This arm of the Center works to improve public health through science-based nutrition and food-safety initiatives, and education.

My rule of thumb for packaging:
If you want healthier foods, go for food packages with a short list of ingredients. Period.

Stay strong in your journey! TTFN, Michele


  1. I'd take that a bit farther and say try to avoid packaged food whenever possible. Start with nature and you're in control.

  2. I'm having a problem myself with serving sizes on labels. Especially dried foods, like fruits. There's no way that 1 oz (1 cup) of dried apricots equals one serving but that's what it says! That would equal about 4 cups of fresh apricots, which is ridiculous!

    Just saying. Vee at

  3. And with ingredients with pronounceable names! What gets me is how many ways they word things that they try to sneak by us... like sugar. Sigh.

  4. I had to stop eating "I can't believe it's not butter" spray all together when I started to get healthy. The label says that 5 sprays equals one serving. I used waaaaaaay more than five The label also says 0 cals in a serving. Well, it's oil based right? There has to be a ton of calories in a bottle of that stuff. Very misleading.

  5. The final bits of advice are really dead on Michele and Glenn! Was just having this conversation at work.

    Once again, I love your info...thanks.

  6. I am a labelaholic now and my son was asking about details so we found this website, it explained things to him in a very clear way

    Great topic!

  7. Sometimes those labels confuse me. Especially when they read "servings vary". I hate that!

  8. Interpretive skills.
    Just to eat.

  9. Excellent post. Lots to think about and learn!

  10. Fan-flippin-tastic! Thank you for taking on this issue. The FDA and other agencies are out to sell what the big businesses have in their possession to sell (after all, their dollars fund legislature, research & academia). If we want the real deal, we have to educate ourselves. Thank you for this information. Excellent!

    Keep up the great work! Much love to you!

  11. Thanks for sharing a great post! I'm a label reader from way back, that's why it takes me so long to get groceries.

  12. I have been reading the labels and trying to stay away from what I can't pronounce, trying to avoid added sugar, and trying to watch the sodium (also sneaky). I stay away from processed foods as much as possible and when I make something from scratch I try to lower the sugar, etc...usually turns out pretty good. Love the info!