Unless you are a picture perfect clean eater and eat a diet consisting of only nonprocessed whole foods- fresh fruits, seasonable vegetables, fresh cut meats – then you’ve probably come across the infamous nutrition fact label. The nutrition facts label is required by law in many countries, the intent of which being to educate the consumer on the nutritional value of what they are potentially consuming. Most of us feel like reading nutrition facts labels is pretty straightforward, but there’s actually a few nuances woven into the creation of them.
According to the FDA, here are three things that are required to be on any given food label:
- Serving Size, Number of Servings
- Calories, Total Fat, Total Carbohydrates, and Protein Per Serving
- Percentage values showing the content of the food in the context of a 2000 calorie diet
Displaying each of these types of information has an intended value to the consumer. Serving sizes are suggested amounts to eat in one serving. Caloric and macronutrient information is useful to consumers counting calories/macros and/or trying to avoid a macronutrient group altogether. Definitions for specific terms makes labeling more transparent. Comparing the content of the food in question to a standard 2000 calorie diet puts the amounts of calories or macronutrients in context with their overall daily diet. If everything worked as intended, this would be a great system. However, some of these labels are easily manipulated by snack companies and others are just useless. In this article we are going to go over three how to read three essential components of nutrition facts labels so that you don’t get fooled.
Serving Sizes & Number of Servings
A serving size is intended to be the amount you eat in a single serving. One common serving size in snack foods is 28 grams, or about 1 ounce. In all honesty this does seem like a nice round number to call a serving size, but it can also be misleading. Snack companies will often manipulate the serving size of a snack to make the calories and macronutrients seem more appealing.
For instance, a certain spicy cheese snack bag claims to contain 3.5 servings. No one is going to eat this bag in three and a half different sessions. Everyone that opens one of these bags is going to finish it within 20 minutes. So the bag gets to claim 170 calories per serving, but the serving size is unrealistic. In reality, one serving is closer to 600 calories…
This misleading practice is something that the FDA has attempted to address. But progress is slow. In the meantime, keep in mind that the listed calories and macronutrients may only be a small portion of what you plan to eat.
Calories, Fat, Carbs, and Protein
Nutrition facts labels must also list calories and macronutrients amounts per serving. As mentioned above, serving size can be manipulated to advertise more appealing amounts of these components. This can make many consumers think a given snack is less calorie dense than it actually is.
Serving sizes can also be manipulated to make claims about macronutrient contents that are just straight up false. This is because there is a small loophole in the way macros are counted in labels: if there is less than 0.5g in a serving, you can round it down to zero.
The most obvious examples of this are olive oil sprays. Some sprays claim to have 0g of fat per serving. Which is astounding considering it’s oil and is essentially all fat! Well, when you take into account that a serving size is 1/4 of a second spray it’s pretty easy to see this trick at work. Most people spray for a pan for at least 2 seconds, which adds up to 8 servings. If you assume each of those is 0.5g of of fat, you can reason that you just sprayed 4g of fat despite the label indicating there was none.
Daily Percentage Values
So this is actually done with the best intentions and just completely misses the mark. The idea here is that the consumer can see how much of their daily calories, fats, carbs, iron, Vitamin A, whatever will be met by this snack. The only problem is that it assumes everyone needs a 2000 calorie diet and the same amount of nutrients. That’s just not how nutrition works.
Nutritional needs are as individualized as people are themselves. Two people can be the same height, weight, train the same, sleep the same, and they will still have different nutritional needs. Overall, daily percentage values are very well intentioned but they can’t work in the real world.
And That’s Not All…
There are many more ways that snack food companies manipulate nutrition facts labels to try to fool customers (YOU). I hope this article has enlightened you to how to effectively read nutrition facts labels with confidence. If you want to learn more about some of the BS that many food companies try to sneak past you then you are going to want to check out Big Fat Food Fraud. It’s an amazing insight into the world of food labels, health food companies, and the fitness industry in general. As a sweet bonus, it’s also hilarious, uplifting and extremely well written.