Food Labels: Serving Up More Than You Realize
Here’s a food labeling question for you - which food has more calories, a regular fig bar, or a fat-free fig bar? If you’re like most people, you might assume that fat-free always means fewer calories. But while the fat might be gone, many fat-free baked goods have amped up sugar levels ; so much sugar, in fact, that they can pack as many calories as the real thing.
Label reading is an art and a skill, but a little knowledge gives you a lot of power. Understanding some of the labeling terms, and really looking at the numbers on the nutrition facts panel helps you to make better comparisons among products.
First, be sure you understand what serving sizes mean. Many people assume, often incorrectly, that small packages of cookies and crackers, or medium-sized beverage containers, are single servings. As far as beverages go, an ‘official’ serving, at least for labeling purposes, is 8 ounces, but many drinks come in much larger containers. Guzzle a 16-ounce bottle of sweetened tea, and you’ll be drinking two servings, so you’ll need to double all the information on the nutrition facts panel –like the calories and the sugar - to figure out how much calorie damage you’ve done.
Fats, carbohydrate and protein are also listed on a per serving basis, so the same calculation applies – make sure you know how many servings you’re consuming so you can estimate these nutrients appropriately. A small bag of chips might be a single serving to you, but the nutrition facts might tell you there are 3 servings in that bag. That 110 calories you thought you were eating just ballooned to over 300.
Some terms can cause confusion, like the word “light”. It could mean that the food has one-third the calories of the traditional form of the food, or half the fat, as in “light mayonnaise”. But, it could also mean lighter in taste, color or texture. That bottle of “light” olive oil in your pantry has as many calories as extra virgin – it just has a milder taste.
When a label says that a food is “free” of a nutrient, you should know that there are some labeling loopholes. Sodium-free foods can have up to 5 grams of sodium per serving; sugar-free foods can have up to a half gram of sugar, and a food with fewer than five calories can be labeled “calorie-free”. That may not sound like much, but it can add up. I once had a patient who ate 200 calories from sugar free breath mints every day. “Trans-fat free” foods can carry that label if they have less than a half a gram of trans-fats per serving, but they that doesn’t mean they’re entirely “fat-free”, which is yet another reason to read the entire label.
When you read a label, it may help you to visualize how much fat and sugar you’re eating, and here’s how: every five grams of fat is a teaspoon, or a pat of butter, and every 4 grams of sugar is a teaspoon or one sugar cube. So if you consume an entire can of creamy soup, you might be taking in as much as 30 grams of fat, or the equivalent of 6 pats of butter. Down an entire bottle of sweetened tea and you might be taking in as much as 60 grams of sugar – that’s 15 teaspoons, or just shy of 1/3 cup.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.