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Linda Mundorff

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January 2010

Food Handling, Cooking, and Storage


Understanding Food Labels

June 2008
By Dr. Linda Mundorff, MPH,MSN,ND,RN,CNC,CTN

When was the last time you picked up a package of food and actually looked at the contents or ingredient list? Most of us look at the price, maybe the expiration date; and some might glance over the ingredient list looking for something specific. Even fewer will take the time to read the entire list. I suspect that is due to several factors most of which has to do with the fact that for many, the ingredient list is a bunch of gibberish: long chemical terms, math terms listed in grams, which for many of us, we left behind years ago in grammar school. Just how do you convert grams into ounces? I grew-up using ounces to pints to quarts to gallons. Today, kids are learning metric system equations and frankly, it can all be very confusing. Then there are the percentages of daily value. Well that is very nice except it would help to know percentage of what? Do they mean the recommended required amount? Recommended for whom? A child? An adult? What about the elderly? Don't the requirements change depending on your individual needs? Obviously a pregnant woman is going to need a higher required percentage than an 80 year-old woman who is not very active.

It does you absolutely no good to read a food label if you have no idea what you are looking at or how the label is supposed to help you. And since most of us think we must be the only one who is confused, we rarely will ask for assistance. Because I believe that food labels are very important I decided to try and take the guesswork out of it. I want you to understand exactly what you are reading and learn to find things like hidden fat, sugar, and salt. For example, when a product says it is low in fat, it most likely is high in sugar. Without fat, sugar, and salt, a product would taste pretty awful. So if a manufacturer is going to limit the use of one, then they will have to increase the percentages of the other two to balance the taste. The bottom-line is that you are not coming out ahead in the nutrition department.

Ok, so let's move on - grab a soup can (or whatever else you might have available in your pantry) and start at the top of the list: The first thing you will see is the serving size and then the number of servings per container. I don't know who decided what is an appropriate serving size, but for most of us, what is recommended on the can would be enough for a toddler! If you choose not to follow the recommended serving size then make sure you adjust your figures. If the soup can states that there are two servings and you eat the entire can then you are obviously doubling the amount of calories, fat, sugar, salt, etc. Ok, moving down the list you will see the calories per serving and then the nutritional components of the product. For example, the product might contain 500mg of sodium (salt) and has a daily value percentage of 25%. If you were on a caloric intake of 2,000 calories per day, then 25% would be 500mg of salt. You must adjust your intake based on your restrictions. If you are on a low-sodium diet then 500mg might be your entire day's allotment.

Other things you might see on a food label: the daily recommended values for fat, (which should be broken down into total fat, saturated fat, hydrogenated fats), then carbohydrates, and fiber. Lastly many manufacturers will list all the ingredients in the product in descending order. In other words, the most abundant items are listed first. If you see sugar as the first ingredient and then strawberry as the tenth ingredient then that tells you that there is more sugar in this product than fruit. Pretty sad especially if the product is supposed to be strawberry preserves.

Well there you have it - A basic rundown of a food label. Now you are equipped with the knowledge that you need to eat healthier. When you read and understand a food label you discover a whole new world of healthy choices. Remember, your body can't function unless it has the proper tools, it is like a machine, treat it well and it will provide you with years of good service. And the opposite is true as well; if you don't eat right your body will eventually breakdown.

In health and wellness,

Dr. Linda

Disclaimer: Dr. Mundorff is a Board Certified Naturopath, and not a medical doctor. The information in this column is for educational purposes only and should not be used to self-diagnose and treat diseases. Naturopathy is a complementary practice to health care and should be used in conjunction with a competent health care practitioner. Many herbal and homeopathic remedies can actually be contraindicated in many health conditions, with certain prescriptions, and over-the-counter medications. Please consult your physician before starting any alternative modalities.