Food labels: when to take a pass

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

May 2010

The nutrition labels on packaged food should give you the kind of information that will allow you to make healthy decisions but they are more likely to benefit the manufacturer than the consumer. Some of the information is not of much help and some is simply misleading.

Calories are listed per serving but it may not be obvious that there could be several servings in single package. When chocolate bars became popular the entire package contained a single serving — about 2 ounces. Today's bars typically hold 2.5 servings, but who would eat less than half a bar or leave a half-serving in that wrapper?

We expect that the main ingredient in our favorite cereal would be wheat or oats or corn but in reality it's likely to be sugar. That's not apparent on the label because the government allows manufacturers to list each sugar separately. If they had to lump together all the sugar aliases such as corn syrup, brown sugar, dextrose, malt syrup, honey or the several other forms of sugar they would outweigh the flour and thus have to be listed first.

Partially hydrogenated is a code term that designates trans fat and if a product contains less than 0.5 grams of that ingredient the government allows it to be listed as zero. Since zero is the amount of trans fat that should be in our diet because it damages blood vessels (hence the government-imposed limitation) even a couple of grams a day can cause accumulated damage. About 5 servings a day of foods that each contain a just-under-the-limit amount of .45 grams will exceed the amount that we know is harmful. Instead of relying on the misleading listing of trans fat, simply avoid any food that contains partially hydrogenated anything.

It's hard to avoid high fructose corn syrup. Manufacturers love it because it's cheap and consumers love it because it makes food taste good. That's why you'll find it in everything from spaghetti sauce to salad dressing. The amount of fructose in a piece of fruit is fine but we consume way too much and some nutritionists fear that it contributes to our current obesity epidemic.

Nutrition labels list the content of sodium, an important mineral but one that we consume in excess. Pass over anything that contains more than 500 milligrams per serving, which is about one-fifth of what ought to be our daily limit.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.