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February 2001 Issue
Interpreting the Nutrition Facts Label on Groceries
by Michael Fick
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"We're the federal government, and we're here to help you".

Now that we have that oxymoronic belly laugh out of the way, let's look at one case in which it's true: the government-mandated Nutrition Facts label on every grocery item we buy is a great grocery shopping companion. If we shop and eat by it, we'll become a much healthier person and nation. Read on to learn which one or two of the label's parameters will most strongly affect you.

The press reports that nearly half of us ignore nutrition guidelines like these and eat crapola (OK, not exactly the press's term) at the expense of our health and/or longevity because of two myths.

    Myth One: there is too much conflicting nutrition information.
    Fact: There's little conflict among the major sources. Calories minus exercise does equal weight gained; eating mostly whole grains, fruits, and vegetables does help us stay healthier longer; and those high-protein, low-carbo, and/or high-grease fad diets do shed weight quickly at the long-term expense of our bones, kidneys and heart. That's about choices, not conflicts.

    Myth Two: the government is trying to tell us what to eat.
    Fact: No, the government is telling us what's in groceries so we can make informed choices if we wish.

Anyone reading this column regularly does wish, and sees through those myths, so let's take the government grocery-shopping with us, from the top down.

First on the Nutrition Facts label is Serving Size, critical because the rest of the label's data are based on it and because serving sizes vary over a range of at least 1200%. Only the shopper knows how many servings s/he'll eat in a day.

Consider a popular brand of butter substitute spray. One serving has no fat, whereas butter is fat. But one serving of this substitute is just 0.25 to 1.0 gm ... just drops. Because any serving with less than half a gram of fat can be labeled as "Fat Free", this stuff can be 50% fat and still be called "Fat Free". Anyone who squirts -- or pours -- his way through a little 8-oz bottle of this each week could be eating 52,650 calories a year -- 15 pounds on his hips -- of fat, all labeled "Fat Free". He could just run it off ... in 1,000 miles ... but that doesn't include the sugar in the stuff or the calories in the toast or potatoes under it.

Next is Servings Per Container, the number we must multiply the label's other numbers by to evaluate the whole container. If we plan to eat more than one serving, we must do some arithmetic to get realistic numbers for that course of the meal. It's easy to eat many servings of some foods if the manufacturers define a tiny serving size. Who eats just two Oreos or a few potato chips?

Calories is the only number on the label which all by itself determines whether we gain or lose weight (in relation to our metabolism and exercise). Its critical data for the overweight half of the U.S. populace, but a relative yawner for those who stay slender with little effort.

The percentages of carbos, proteins, and fats we should eat are based on their calories, not their weights. Even thin people should watch the Fat Calories in the foods they eat. Add 'em up, divide their total by the total calories you eat each day, and keep the result under 30%. 20% is healthier yet, but the government knows most of us would throw in the towel at 20% and quit trying altogether.

The right-hand column on the label tells us what percentage of a "normal" day's intake one portion of this parameter represents, in calories. The 34 grams of protein in a half-breast of chicken, for example, is about 65% of a daily ration of protein. That leaves very little room for dairy products, bread, beans, even peanut butter.

The one parameter every one of us should aggressively limit is Saturated Fat. Even a scrawny marathon runner or runway model can have high cholesterol, and no food raises our cholesterol like saturated fat, even if we burn it off through exercise. If we limit our meals and snacks to just a few grams of saturated fats, most of us will get much healthier and the rest of our diet will almost take care of itself. It's easy to keep a large meal under 5 grams of saturated fat by reading the labels.

The government will add Trans Fats to the label soon, which will quickly show us why margarine is even worse than butter. Trans fatty acids, the result of man's tinkering with foods by partially hydrogenating healthier unsaturated fats, constipate our cardiovascular systems faster than saturated fats do. Avoid them.

Don't forget Cholesterol. It obviously dominates our every waking ... oh, forget it. Unless you have a serious cholesterol problem already or live on eggs, it's tough to eat more cholesterol than our bodies make anyway. A couple of eggs a week never gave anyone a cholesterol problem they didn't already have. Most cholesterol problems are actually saturated fat problems and/or genetic problems.

Sodium (salt) is a nutrition component we either must watch very closely or can almost ignore, depending on one number we must know: our blood pressure. If our BP is high, sodium intake must be kept very low. It can't hurt any of us to eat less salt than most of us do, but don't eliminate it. A simple first step is to replace ordinary table salt with Lite salt, which replaces half of the sodium with potassium, an element we often need more of anyway.

Then comes the ubiquitous mainstay of any good diet, Carbohydrates. Great stuff! Eat 'em up; they should comprise well over half of our calorie intake. Fruits, veggies, and whole grain products -- all carbohydrates -- help most fat people lose weight and most underweight people add a little weight. They're high in the next parameter, Fiber, and people who get the 40-50 grams of fiber we need each day are usually healthier and happier -- and often spend less time in the bathroom -- than those who don't.

Bread and fiber bring up the Serving Size issue again. Slices run from 35 to 65 grams, so the fiber content -- THE determining factor for avoiding white bread of any color -- should be at least three grams per slice, assuming slices of 30-45 grams. The king-sized slices of 55-60 grams should list 4 grams of fiber per slice. (OTOH, if you find a high-fiber but tasty bread for French toast, please let us know.)

Sugars? Want a laugh ... at your own expense? Look at the list of ingredients in packaged desserts, listed in decreasing order of their presence by weight. Do those conniving food manufacturers really think we don't know that pear juice, high energy fructose, molasses, concentrated corn syrup, maltodextose, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, and honey are just sugar? Be glad these euphemisms can't hide sugar content from the Calories or Sugar parameters on the nutrition label.

Then there's Protein. Only a 200-pound teen-aged body-builder needs anywhere near 100 grams of protein a day. In anyone else, more than 60-80 grams a day starts joining the calorie parade to our hips, leaching calcium from our bones, dehydrating us, and overworking our kidneys. Many of us could skip meat altogether and still get too much protein. Read the labels, add up the protein numbers, and rethink that slab of meat.

Finally, the label lists a few of the many vitamins and minerals we must eat. Your diet (not to be confused with a diet) should include plenty of all of them, which fill a whole book. Eat a good diet and you don't have to read the book.

If you read and heed the government nutrition labels when grocery shopping, you're on the road to some fine, healthy, tasty dining. Having trouble getting motivated to do that ... or to get more exercise and sleep? We'll discuss motivation next month, right here.



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