The Great Debate: Nutrition Facts Panel

Nutrition Facts Panel

This staple of packaged foods was implemented to help consumers understand a little bit more about the foods that they are purchasing.  It is required by law to have certain information on it and for that information to be organized in a specific manner.  The Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP) was enacted in 1990 and for some reason it's 20 years later and it seems to be hard for consumer to understand.  Serving size, percent daily value, based on a 2000 calorie diet, and wording regarding allergens can all be difficult to grasp on their own, let alone synthesized into a picture of health on a little two inch by five inch rectangle on your beloved foods.  

Consumer Consciousness

The International Food Information Council surveyed over 1,000 consumers to learn about their knowledge of, and comfort level with the NFP, particularly at the point of purchase.  Their research found that most consumers only read the label for new foods and that most were confused about serving size and fitting the nutrition facts into the context for their total diet or daily intake.  

Organizations and policy makers are constantly debating the ways to improve this.  How do we clarify the label, get all the necessary information in there, and make it visually appealing to the public?  How does having the nutrition information for a single item or serving fit into the puzzle that is the total diet?  

Label Education

Well for starters I recommend the FDA website.  The FDA has broken down the NFP and walks the consumer through the label, how it's organized, and what to pay attention to.  If you don't want to look through that whole site here are some simple tips for label reading...

  • Look at serving size and number of servings in the package.  That will give you a good background idea for how to look at the rest of the numbers.
  • Check out total calories but nutrition is not about calories!  A nutritious lifestyle takes into account totality and an array of nutrients, don't fall into the calorie-attitude trap.
  • Limit fat, cholesterol and sodium content.  Pay closer attention to saturated and trans fats.  They are the more dangerous fats for your heart.
  • Look at the details for the carbohydrate content.  Is there fiber?  Use 3 grams as your benchmark, below that is ok, but above that is better.  Is the sugar excessive?  One teaspoon of sugar is equivalent to about 4 grams of sugar.  Divide the number you read by four and if you're uncomfortable eating that many tablespoons of sugar in one serving pass on the item.  
  • Check out protein content but unless you're an athlete or suffer a particular health condition don't make this a crux of your decision making.  Protein is found in small amounts in such a wide range of products that Americans generally meet their requirements without a problem.
  • Use the micronutrient content of the item to compare two products rather than focus on the absolute numbers.