Reading Between the Lines - The Truth Behind Food Labels

Zahra Hassanali
23 January 2012

It is surprising how a simple trip to the grocery store can be incredibly intimidating nowadays. With shelves piled high with a huge variety of food items and with each product stating their claim to fame: "Reduced Sugar", " Low in Fat", "Fat Free", it's no wonder we are more confused than ever about what we should be eating.

With shelves piled high with a huge variety of food items and with each product stating their claim to fame: "Reduced Sugar", " Low in Fat", "Fat Free", it's no wonder we are more confused than ever about what we should be eating. What does it all mean?

In the United states, both the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are involved in the regulation of claims on food products and all manufacturers are required to abide by these rules. Similarly, in Canada the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada are responsible for food labeling policies.

Did you know? When a product claims that it is "FREE" of a certain nutrient, the FDA requires that the product contain less than ½ gram of that nutrient.

Despite commercial control by the FDA, to fully understand what's in the food we are eating it is important to read beyond the claim. You may be surprised by what you discover.

What's the difference between "LOW" and "LIGHT"?

A label stating that the product is "LOW" in a certain nutrient means that the product does not exceed a certain level per serving. For example, a claim of "Low-Calories" means that the product must contain 40 calories or less per serving. On the other hand, the claim "LIGHT" means that the product must contain 33% fewer calories or ½ the fat of the original or reference food product.

Did you know? A product that claims it is "REDUCED" in a certain nutrient means that the food has been altered and contains 25% less of that nutrient.

With so many product claims out there and more popping up every day you don't have to spend hours on the FDA website, making notes and creating cue cards in an attempt to remember what every food claim means. The quick solution is to turn the box over and read the nutrition fact sheet and the ingredient list. Here you will find all the information you need about the amount of fat, calories, protein, sugar, as well as vitamin and mineral content.

Did you know? The recommended daily allowances values are often based on caloric intakes of 2000 calories a day. However, your caloric intake can vary from that. The Harris Benedict Equation provides an equation that calculates the amount of calories you should be consuming in a day.

The Replacements

At this point you have to be wondering what they replace for the nutrients that are removed. In products claiming a reduction in fat content, the products are watered down. However, to ensure that the taste and consistency does not differ from the original product the fat is replaced with thickening agents and sugars. It is important to note that the addition of sugar adds extra calories.

Did you know? Did you know that "Lite" chocolate syrup contains more calories than the "Sugar-Free" chocolate syrup.

In products claiming a reduction in sugar, thickening agents and preservatives are substituted. One preservative of significance is sodium. Some products contain double the amount of sodium in order to maintain the preservatives properties that sugar would generally provide.

Sugars are also replaced by

sugar alcohols

(e.g. Xylitol, Sorbitol), which are compounds that are not completely metabolized by the body and contain anywhere between 0-3 calories per gram, as compared to the 4 calories per gram of sugar. Sugar alcohols function to sweeten and add bulk and texture. They also provide a cooling effect or taste, inhibit browning during heating and retain moisture.

Ultimately, product choice should be based on an understanding of the nutritional value of the food and on your nutritional goal; whether it be weight loss, muscle-building or to simply maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Learn More!

US FDA/CFSAN: Food Labeling Overview.

Understanding Food Labels: Health Claims.

International Food Information Council: Sugar Alcohols.

The Harris Benedict Equation.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency — Fair Labeling Practices

Article first published June 23, 2009

Zahra Hassanali

I have my MSc in Nutritional Sciences and am currently working towards becoming a registered dietitian. Aside from the world of science, another passion of mine is painting. 


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