Monday, July 12, 2010

Reading and Interpreting Food Labels

As part of nutrition education for the Bariatric Program, I often include how to read and interpret food labels. Most of us are familiar with the Nutrition Facts Panel; however, there are two areas that bear review.
1. Serving Size: My son bought a $5.00 candy bar from a little girl who was selling candy for a fund raiser. Five dollars seems high for a candy bar, even for a fund raiser, but it was a really big candy bar. I casually looked to see how many kcalories it contained. The label said 220 kcalories. Not really that bad, then, I looked at the number of serving sizes: 2 ½ servings in this bar meaning that the entire bar contained 550 kcalories. I did notice this morning that my son, not a big sweet eater, had saved most of the bar in a zip-lock bag (not the sandwich size bag but a quart size bag.)
Lesson learned: remember to look at the serving size and the number of servings on the label.
2. Trans fat: The FDA has required food manufacturers to list trans fat on the Nutrition Facts Panel since January 1, 2006. A food can be labeled as having zero trans fat but still contain .5 grams of trans fat per serving. Therefore, it is possible to eat more that the AHA recommends (2 grams a day) by eating several servings of these foods without realizing it.
Even if you are able to decipher the information on the Nutrition Facts Panel, sometimes the “front of the package” labels can be misleading. In fact, a commentary in a recent issue of JAMA reported that the front of package labels may so thoroughly mislead the public that eliminating “all nutrition and health claims from the front of processed food packages” should be considered. This action may seem drastic but I agree that something needs to be done to protect the public from these misleading claims.
The FDA is aware of this problem. Indeed, FDA commissioner, Margaret Hamburg announced last fall that her agency would be taking nutrition and health claims on packaging seriously. She stated, “some nutritionists have questioned whether information is more marketing-oriented than health-oriented”.

- Jamie Bass
Dietitian, Bariatric Services

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