Figuring out the nutrition label

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

December 2007

That prominent box-type Nutrition Facts label on every packaged food product gives a good deal of information about the item's nutritional value. That's only part of the story. The list of Ingredients at the bottom of the panel gives you details that may surprise you but that are worth reading.

Representatives from the food industry, the government and the scientific community designed the Nutrition Facts label. No one should be surprised that it came out looking like a camel — a horse that was designed by a committee. It's a useful camel to be sure, just like the real animal but it has its peculiarities.

The most important number on the label is serving size, which is sometimes frustratingly small. What Oreo cookie lover could be satisfied with only two? But the numbers on the label refer to only one serving even if the entire package seems like one serving.

The number listed for trans fats may not reflect the exact truth. When the government ordered all food manufacturers to list the amount of heart-damaging trans fat on the label it allowed any amount less than 0.5 grams to be designated as zero. If the Nutrition Facts label states that the amount of trans fats is zero but the ingredients label lists partially hydrogenated oil the product does contain a small but possibly significant amount of trans fat. Since so many packaged foods and baked goods contain trans fat it's easy to accumulate several grams a day. An average daily intake of about 5 grams of trans fat raises the risk for coronary artery disease and for gallstones by more than 20 percent.

Although most people who look at the Nutrition Facts panel go no further you can zero in on what matters by a quick glance at the Ingredients list. The ingredients section lists everything in the container, except for water, in descending order by weight. In other words, if the first item on the list is wheat flour it means that there's more flour than any other ingredient — or so it seems. The next time you pick up a box of breakfast cereal, see how many different words are used to describe sugar. Each one can be listed separately to make you think that it's a minor ingredient. If maltose, fructose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, sucrose, malt syrup and honey were all lumped together as one ingredient it would often be the second (after flour) by weight.

The ingredients list is the best place to find the nutrients that you definitely want in your diet. Whole grain or whole wheat (not refined wheat) flour is a good choice. So is olive oil, which is high in calories but also generously supplied with antioxidants and other nutrients that help in preventing heart disease and cancer.

Make a habit of checking nutrition labels. There are enough healthy products now on the market that you don't need to settle for the unhealthy ones.

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.