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Is that right? Nutrition Facts are enough?

Whether you're trying to lose 10 pounds (as I am) or just trying to feed yourself and your family better, checking Nutrition Facts panels on packaged foods is an important way to keep tabs on what you're about eat -- or to make an informed decision not to eat it.

But as Hemi Weingarten, author of the Fooducate blog, tells us, the Nutrition Facts panel doesn't tell the whole story. Here's what he looks at when he's picking apart a label.


Is that right? Reading the Nutrition Facts panel is enough to know if something is good for me or not?

No.

Here's why.

The Nutrition Facts panel (NFP) and the ingredient list go hand in hand to provide us with information to make a smart, healthy choice. By looking only at the NFP, you may be missing out on crucial information. It provides us with only 10 to 20 data points (such as calories, fat, vitamin A and iron).

But nutrition is much more complex. A carrot, for example, contains hundreds of nutrients. The Nutrition Facts panel is only a small peephole to a much larger portrait of biological and chemical interactions that take place when food enters our body. Since most shoppers are not scientists, a much longer list of nutrient values wouldn't help us either. Nor is there room on product packages to list hundreds of micronutrients.

The ingredient list, though, can provide explicit and implicit assurances as to the product we're about to place in your shopping cart. If it is a short and easily understandable list of ingredients, chances are the product is healthier. If there are no controversial food colorings, sweeteners, or preservatives, chances are the product is healthier.

Let's explain through two examples.

Here's the nutrition information for Yoplait's light strawberry yogurt. Only 100 calories. 15 percent and 25 percent of the daily requirement of vitamin A and calcium, respectively. Scanning the product title and NFP paints a very rosy picture: Yogurt: check. Strawberries: check....Healthy: check.

But let's take a look at the ingredient list:

Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Nonfat Milk, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Strawberries, Modified Corn Starch, Nonfat Milk, Kosher Gelatin, Citric Acid, Tricalcium Phosphate, Aspartame, Potassium Sorbate Added to Maintain Freshness, Natural Flavor, Red 40, Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin D3.

What do we learn? More sugar than fruit. The vitamin A and calcium are tacked on to the product, not a natural part of it. Artificial coloring is added. Artificial sweetener added. Flavoring added. Other preservatives are added. What was implied to be a healthy natural food suddenly doesn't seem quite so.

Here's another great example -- a leading breakfast cereal. It contains 3 grams of fiber, 12 grams of sugar and 0 trans-fats and boasts 9 vitamins and minerals. All in 100 calories per serving. Kids love it, and the front package boasts "natural fruit flavors."

But taking a look at the ingredient list reveals so much more.

Sugar, Corn Flour, Wheat Flour, Whole Oat Flour, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (One or More of: Coconut, Cottonseed, and Soybean) (Less than 0.5 g Trans Fat Per Serving), Salt, Sodium Ascorbate and Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Reduced Iron, Natural Orange, Lemon, Cherry, Raspberry, Blueberry, Lime, and Other Natural Flavors, Red No. 40, Blue No. 2, Yellow No. 6, Zinc Oxide, Niacinamide, Turmeric Color, Blue No. 1, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Thiamin Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Vitamin A Palmitate, Annatto Color, BHT (Preservative), Folic Acid, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12.

Sugar is the first ingredient! Ingredient number five -- partially hydrogenated vegetable oil -- means that trans-fat is present here, despite its being labeled as zero in the NFP. This is due to a loophole in FDA regulations that allows the rounding down to zero of low nutrient values. But at the same time, health organizations recommend we consume NO trans-fat at all, not even small amounts.

Further inspection of the ingredient list reveals no real fruit content. Only "Natural flavors," which basically means some lab in New Jersey captured the essence of cherry in a test tube and sold it to the cereal manufacturer. Next up: a rainbow of artificial colors -- Red 40, Blue 2 and Yellow 6 -- adorn the ingredient list. This, just before the inventory of added vitamins and minerals. While fortification in and of itself is not bad, dietitians will tell you that it's best to get your vitamins from natural sources such as real fruit. (If you haven't guessed which breakfast cereal we're talking about, it's Froot Loops.)

To summarize, the Nutrition Facts panel is a quantitative look at a small number of important nutritional parameters. The ingredient list is a more qualitative overview of what we're putting into our body. Using one without the other makes it difficult to come to optimal decisions.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 16, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger , Is That Right? , Me Minus 10 , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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Comments

The author makes good points. In this food-processed environment you need to use the tools available to you to choose the right fuel for your body.

Poor health and poor education are often intertwined. A reader who is put off by hard/unfamiliar words will not benefit from information that's out there.

Perhaps the best thing our society can do is to be certain that children, no matter what their situation in life, can read. All the other stuff is just fluff is you can't take in the contents of a cereal box!

Posted by: RedBird27 | April 16, 2010 7:33 AM | Report abuse

We need more articles and information about what we are buying, eating, and putting into our bodies. My new mantra when it comes to packaged food is this: Less is better. The less ingredients, especially ones that I can't pronounce, are better for me and my body. We have enough toxins around us without eating them. Seems like every couple of weeks there is a new ingredient that has been found to be detrimental to us, the latest being triclosan. So, I read labels, and look for fewer ingredients, preferably organic, as natural means nothing on a label.
Let's have more information like this, and on the labels.

Posted by: tootsie11 | April 16, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

We need more articles and information about what we are buying, eating, and putting into our bodies. My new mantra when it comes to packaged food is this: Less is better. The less ingredients, especially ones that I can't pronounce, are better for me and my body. We have enough toxins around us without eating them. Seems like every couple of weeks there is a new ingredient that has been found to be detrimental to us. Yikes! So, I read labels, and look for fewer ingredients, preferably organic, as natural means nothing on a label.
Let's have more information like this, and on the labels.

Posted by: tootsie11 | April 16, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Wow. I always thought Froot Loops were made with 100% real froot.

Posted by: Ralphinjersey | April 16, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I'm shocked--shocked!!--that sugar is the no. 1 ingredient in a cereal for kids. Of course, if you recognize that a serving size is (I'm guessing) set at 1 ounce--which is just under 30 grams--you'd also, possibly, recognize that 12 grams represents 40% of the total. I'm guessing the total amount of flour probably exceeds that of the sugar, but there are 3 different types of flour, so no single variety comprises as much as 40%. A little basic math literacy can go a long way toward helping to understand what you're buying. It's also too bad that there's little emphasis on what we used to call home economics, when I was in school. It ought to be mandatory--for girls AND boys, and focus on just these sorts of real-life issues. (Real-life issues in school--what a revolutionary idea.)

Nutrition labels are basically a scam--they have enough info to comply with government regulations and (in most cases) not an iota more. But in my view, a consumer who won't or can't read the ingredients list and see what he/she is buying pretty much deserves what he/she gets. (And anyone who believes that (most) kids eat only 1 oz. of cereal at a time--well, I have some swampland I'd like to sell.)

Posted by: oldguy2 | April 16, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Reading the ingredients list on the yogurt also tells me that it, like most brands of yogurt that size, isn't vegetarian, at least by most people's definition. This is due to the presence of gelatin; that it's kosher means that it's likely from fish, which is fine for keeping kosher but not for keeping vegetarian.

Other foods possibly considered healthy that are not vegetarian include Shredded Mini-Wheats (gelatin in the frosting) and fat-free sour cream (gelatin rather than fat thickens it).

Posted by: EAS1 | April 16, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Calcium "tacked on" to the yogurt? Gee, I thought nonfat milk (ingredient number one)had lots of calcium!

Posted by: dottie_b | April 17, 2010 12:51 AM | Report abuse

Meal plans can help you eat a balanced diabetes diet, keeping your blood sugar under control. use this free meal planner http://bit.ly/cMc1i8

Posted by: faecloudy | April 17, 2010 3:22 AM | Report abuse

how about eating food that doesn't come in a package? i find it much more satisfying to eat only food that is actually food (ie. a carrot, kale, oats etc.) rather than "food products." i use products and eat food.

Posted by: anniesang | April 17, 2010 5:51 AM | Report abuse

As consumers we should consider ourselves lucky to have the information we have. If left up to manufacturers we would have zero.

IMO any food which does not have a minimum level of nutrition should be labeled as a non-food and taxed as if it was a candy.

Posted by: The-Historian | April 17, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Of COURSE we must get back to basics and eat as little unprocessed foods as possible. Please see my blog for some healthy suggestions. It is rather disgusting what most people are eating. Yuk!
Kim Crawford,M.D./Anti-Aging Mind,Body,Skin Care
http://kimcrawfordmd.com

Posted by: doctorkim1 | April 20, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

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