Category Archives: Food Labels

Reading Food Labels

Sugar isn't so high on the ingredients list in this product because it is added in many forms. Check the nutrition facts to get the total amount of sugar.
Sugar isn’t so high on the ingredients list in this product because it is added in many forms. Check the nutrition facts to get the total amount of sugar.

Do you read the food labels for the foods you buy? Most of us don’t because they are often confusing, misleading, hard to understand, and have teeny-tiny type. You might think that the purpose of the food label is to help the consumer, but the reality is that it’s more about selling a product. That’s why you often hear people say the best foods don’t come with labels.

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Detecting Food Allergens from Labels

Ingredient List with Food Allergens in CONTAINS Statement
If you read food labels on foods before you buy them, you may have noticed a statement that says “CONTAINS” followed by a list of one or more food items. You’ll see it just below the ingredients list as in the picture to the right. It’s often in bold type. You may think this is a good thing, but read on to learn why you cannot depend on it.

First, some background information. The Food Allergen Labeling and consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) sets the guidelines for how foods are to be labeled regarding “major food allergens.” These are the 8 food allergens that account for 90% of food allergic reactions. They are:

  1. Milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
  4. Crustacean shellfish (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp)
  5. Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
  6. Peanuts
  7. Wheat
  8. Soybeans

It is required by this law that food labels identify the food source names for all major food allergens. But here’s where it gets tricky. Manufacturers can label the food source in one of two ways:

1) By listing the major food allergen in parentheses following the name of the ingredient
Examples: “lecithin (soy),” “flour(wheat)”, and “whey (milk)”

OR

2) Immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a “contains” statement.

Example: “Contains Wheat, Milk, and Soy.”

Sounds simple enough, until you start looking at food labels. The “CONTAINS” statement is nice and clear. And it’s easy to find on a label (see image above). But the parenthetical version, while seemingly simple, can be a real issue in a long ingredient list (see image below). I personally despise long ingredient lists and tend to put the item back if the list is too long. It’s just too easy to miss something. Wouldn’t it be nice if they all used “CONTAINS?”

Ingredient List with Food Allergens in Parenthesis

So be cautious when you’re shopping. Look for the CONTAINS information near the ingredients list. But if you don’t find it, read that ingredients list carefully. And one other thing: you may want to check the label every time you buy something. You never know when a manufacturer will change their ingredients.

Are You Eating Trans Fat?

Cookies Nutrition Facts

Most of us have heard about trans fat and that it is not healthy. Trans fat increases your LDL (aka “bad” cholesterol) AND also decreases you HDL (“good” cholesterol). It has also been shown to increase triglycerides and inflammation. But food manufacturers like to use it primarily because it prolongs the shelf life of foods prepared with it.

How do you know trans fat is in your food?

In the ingredient list, any partially hydrogenated oils are trans fat.

BUT

Sometimes, foods say “0 grams trans fat” on the front of the package.

And they can also say 0 grams trans fat on the Nutrition Facts. (see image at right)

Yet they can still contain trans fat!

The image below is from the same package as the Nutrition Facts. You can see, on the fourth line, that it contains partially hydrogenated oils.
Cookies Ingredient List

How can this be? Here’s how:

The following quote is from the FDA’s Food Labeling Guidelines:

5. How should trans fatty acids be listed?
Trans fatty acids should be listed as “Trans fat” or “Trans” on a separate line under the listing of saturated fat in the nutrition label. Trans fat content must be expressed as grams per serving to the nearest 0.5-gram increment below 5 grams and to the nearest gram above 5 grams. If a serving contains less than 0.5 gram, the content, when declared, must be expressed as “0 g.”

What do you need to do?
Read all of the label, including the ingredients list. Because, here’s the thing. If a product says 0 grams trans fat per serving, it could be 0.49 grams of fat per servings. You just don’t know! So if you’re eating cookies and you tend to eat more than what the package says a serving is, you could be consuming a lot of trans fat.

Serving Size is Arbitrary

Coca-Cola - 2 LitersServing size is listed at the top of the “Nutrition Facts” section of a food label. It’s something that you should be aware of. But what does it really mean? It’s important to be aware of it, but you have to look at the whole picture.

I once saw individually-wrapped cookies for sale in a coffee shop. They were about 3 or 4 inches in diameter. The nutrition facts said that a serving size was one-fourth of a cookie. So that one cookie was 4 servings. It’s likely that most people who bought one of the cookies at it all in one sitting. Yet all of the nutrition information reads much better if they set the serving size smaller.
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