Nutrition Labeling: Time for Change is Now

The Nutrition Facts Panel

The nutrition facts panel is a sorely underused bevy of information for consumers.  It is something that I regularly counsel clients on how to use as a tool and how to apply their individual needs to the information on the panel to make balanced decisions at the point of purchase.  It can be overwhelming to apply at first, but hopefully with some changes to make the label a bit easier to understand, the habit of using labels to impact consumer decision-making will become more routine.

Check out the press release from the FDA regarding the changes: FDA proposes updates to nutrition facts label on food packages 

What's Changing?

  • Serving Sizes and Calories are going to be more reflective of what people are actually eating and more prominently displayed
  • Added Sugars are going to be added to the label under the Sugars (under Carbohydrates) to clearly identify sugars that are not naturally occurring
  • Vitamins A and C are out, Vitamin D and Potassium is in as there are rarely deficiencies in the former, and the latter play larger roles in the development of chronic disease

Other Ideas?

First of all, the comment period is open right now regarding the proposed changes.  If you are interested in making a comment (I made mine!) please visit the following sites:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (yes, love them!) has been on the forefront of this issue for years now and had come up with an interesting proposal regarding the changes.  See page 10 of this report for the best visual and explanation.  Personally, I prefer their changes to the current changes proposed by the FDA, but I understand that that would require a huge overhaul.  Not only is the FDA careful to not make major changes for fear of further confusing consumers, but many manufacturers are very resistant to these changes.

I honestly feel that the big change that is missing is requiring all sources of sugars to be listed together in the ingredients list to open up consumers eyes to just how haphazardly and insidiously processed sugars are added into the food supply.  I feel that adding them to the label as added sugars is a step, but unfortunately I'd bet we're going to find food manufacturers going the 'route of trans fats' and keeping the limits per serving just low enough to be able to label them as 0g.  There is also no reference for the consumer, so listen up!  The American Heart Association recommends no more than 24 grams daily for women and 36 grams daily for men.

What's the Deal with Coconut Oil?

Coconut Oil: Friend or Foe?Image reprinted with permission from www.coconutandberries.com and www.healthyaperture.com

Tropical oils (namely coconut oil and palm kernel oil) continue to grow in popularity as they become more mainstream options in the grocery store.  If you're looking for cooking-stable alternatives to traditional butter and shortening, coconut oil may be a great option for you.

These are very high in saturated fats (at about 92% saturated fat), so they must be treated this way in terms of planning your overall diet.  In other words, continue to try to keep them to about 7% of total caloric intake to stay within recommended guidelines to help reduce risk of heart disease. Here is that 7% of total calories translated into quantity of coconut oil (just remember this is for the entire day!):

  • 1500 kcal diet = 12g saturated fats = 1tbsp (3 tsp), 117 calories
  • 1800 kcal diet = 14g saturated fats = 3.5 tsp, 136 calories
  • 2200 kcal diet = 17g saturated fats = 4.75 tsp, 166 calories
  • 2600 kcal diet = 20g saturated fats = 5.5 tsp, 195 calories

Now that said, coconut oil consists of largely medium chain fatty acids and has a higher content of lauric acid than most other oils.  What this means for you is that the fats are more easily digested, and actually have a big impact on increasing HDL cholesterol, or the good cholesterol.  Don't be fooled though, because they increase LDL, or the bad cholesterol, as well but to a lesser degree.  This can actually improve the ratio of your good:bad cholesterol on your lipid panel.

I think we are going to see a rise in consumption of these as consumers (as well as possibly the FDA!) continue to move away from relying on hydrogenated oils for shelf-stability.  We will also continue to see the conversation morph on this topic because as these tropical oils become more popular, more research studies regarding health effects will be conducted, and more health organizations are going to add tropical oils to their formal recommendations.

My position: Friend when consumed in appropriate amounts.  Yeah, that moderation thing again.


And please click on the photo to be taken to a recipe for Apple and Raisin Oaty Breakfast Cookies.  Recipe discovered by clicking through the amazing site Healthy Aperture.

Nutrition Policy In the News


Big Gulp

The New York City of Department of Public Health put into effect this month a new effort to decrease consumption of added calories from sugary beverages.  Beverages contaning sugar must be sold in servings of 16 ounces or less.  Water and "diet" drinks may be sold in larger quantities.  Research has linked larger portion sizes, plate sizes, and utensil sizes with an increase in caloric consumption.  Subsequently, as the standard cups and plates that fill our cabinets have grown, so have our waistlines. 

Arsenic in Rice

The Food and Drug Administration has an ongoing study regarding arsenic in rice consuption for 1200 products.  Consumer Reports recently put out an article that has raised public attention to this issue.  Rice absorbs trace amounts of arsenic in its natural growing conditions because it is grown in groundwater.  The FDA has found no evidence thus far that causes concern for the level of contamination (1 gram arsenic per 115,000 servings of rice) however they will be completing the study and releasing their final results and a new standard at the end of this year.  Organically grown rice and rice products are proving to have lower levels than inorganically grown.  At this point the take home message remains to moderate rice products in the diet.  Registered Dietitians are also encouraging use of organic products with babies and children as we find that children are susceptible to increased per-kilogram consumption of added chemicals.


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.  

Fast Food Top Ten List

Ingredients Galore

Fast Food is an interesting concept.  Companies make the quickest and cheapest meals possible, and serve up dishes on the selling point of convenience.  I admit, it's very convenient to not have to prepare a meal, or to have something to eat in just minutes, plus it's easy on the wallet.  My goal is not to chastise fast food, we have free markets and they have a business plan that works.  It is an option that is offered all across the globe, and I think having options is the very element that provides variety to our diet.  But what I do want to look at is the ingredients that combine to bring us these foods.  What are we eating exactly?  A Big Mac has 67 ingredients.  67!  I think it's time to make fast food a little bit more visible.  HowStuffWorks put together a list of the top ten most common ingredients in fast food.  Let's take a look... 

Letterman Could Have Fun With This...

10. Citric Acid - The most common preservative in the US.  This chemical compound makes the environment acidic to prevent or slow bacterial and mold growth.  This is a compound that occurs naturally in the body (an intermediate of the Krebs Cycle) and so does not harm us as we ingest it and is approved by the FDA.  

9. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) - The most common Image courtesy of IStockPhoto user profetasweetener in the US.  Pick up a processed item in the grocery store and you'll be hard pressed not to find this in the ingredient list.  HFCS is a sweetener that is cheap to make, just as sweet as sugar, and helps preserve the shelf life of foods.  HFCS is also closely linked with obesity (largely due to the fact that it is most prevalent in high-calorie foods that contain few nutrients).  

8. Caramel Color - This food coloring additive helps the food we eat to look appetizing.  This additive does not affect the nutrition profile of the food.

7. Salt - The spice of life, literally.  This seasoning is used left and right in fast food to make the meals more palatable.  Salt is a natural compound, but unfortunately has shown to increase blood pressure in studies time and time again.  

6. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) - This form of glutamate enhances flavors that already exist in food and does not have its own distinct taste.  While questions have arose regarding the safety of MSG and its interactions with brain tissues, the FDA has determined that it is "safe when consumed at levels typically found in cooking and food manufacturing".  

5. Niacin - The most common nutrient.  Well it looks like number five is one for the books.  This nutrient, also known as Vitamin B3, is added back to the buns and bread of fast food products after the processing stripped them of their initial nutrients.  Niacin is a water soluble vitamin that can be found in poultry, fish, lean meats, nuts, and eggs.  

4. Soybean Oil - Soybean oil is a fast-food staple that is used for deep-frying menu items.  Traditionally soybean oil has had to undergo hydrogenation to increase its shelf-life, loading it with trans fats.  But newer technologies have allowed processors to skip this step and leave the mostly monounsaturated fatty acids as the source of fat in the oil.  While some fast food establishments have been slow to adopt the new oils, many have seen it as a way to wipe their slate clean of trans fats on the menu.  

3. Mono- and di-glycerides - These are a food additive that emulsify liquids to allow smooth mixing of ingredients, and to stabilize food.  These compounds are "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA and while they add no nutrients to the diet they are a source of fat in foods.  

2. Xantham Gum - This compound is largely used as a thickening agent for foods.  It is not an emulsifier but stabilizes emulsions so that the ingredients remain viscous and mixed.  Xantham Gum is not associated with adverse effects, and it aids the mouthfeel of a product.Image courtesy of Claran Griffin of Getty Images

1. Chicken - Chicken is an option in all types of meals, from sandwiches, to wraps, to salads, to nuggets or strips, and everything in between.  Consumption of chicken has nearly doubled since 1970, and no matter which way you order it, your chicken is sure to be combined with several of the ingredients on this list, along with hundreds of others before making it's way onto your plate.

Well There You Have It

The top ten ingredients in fast food.  Interesting, huh?