The nutrition facts label: essential information or convoluted rubbish?
Since the mid-90′s, the FDA has mandated that most foods be labeled with this all-too-familiar label, which provides consumers with specific serving size, calorie, and nutrient information, amongst other things.
Most health-conscious people have found this to be an invaluable tool, allowing us to make intelligent choices about what we put into our bodies using the hard data provided. Counting calories, fat, or carbs, once an activity relegated only to the scientists with access to this arcane information, was now democratized and available to all!
But far from being straightforward and forthcoming, there are several “dark secrets” behind the nutrition facts label that you must learn how to maneuver around if you are to get the maximum amount of value out of it.
The Serving Size Song and Dance
The first item you’ll see listed in the nutrition facts is the serving size. This controversial item has been vaguely defined as the average amount of that food that a person consuming 2,000 kcal per day will eat in one sitting.
Most people instead interpret this amount as the maximum which should be eaten in one sitting. This can lead to such neurotic behavior as measuring your food with cups and scales in order to avoid overeating.
Since this serving size is tailored for those who consume 2,000 kcal every day (few grown men can thrive on so little) and since, by definition, half of all those people are eating either more or less than the average, the serving size is of practical use for only a tiny portion of the population.
If that wasn’t enough, serving sizes as listed offer absolutely no guidance as to how much food you should eat, leaving most people under the impression that only one serving should be eaten in one sitting, and feeling guilty when they ultimately consume more than that.
For example, a half a banana constitutes a serving of fruit, and a quarter of a chicken breast is equal to a serving of meat. Sound like you can get a satisfying dinner out of these kinds of numbers? …Are those crickets I hear?
The concept of a serving size is, unfortunately, functionally useless. So what should you do instead?
Simple. Do what everyone that has lived before the last 40 years has done: use your gut, not your measuring cup, to determine when you should stop eating.
Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, your body is designed to stop eating when it has fulfilled its energy requirements provided you are eating mostly whole, unprocessed food. Make sure you know how to hack your mind to eat better so that the majority of your meals are healthy, and you’ll never have to worry about serving size suggestions again.
Bottom Line: Ignore serving size suggestions and instead stop eating when you are full.
Next up on the nutrition label is the calorie count as well as the calories from fat. Someone hold me back…
Okay, I took a few deep breaths. Now I can handle this.
According to the FDA, anything greater than 400 calories is considered “high calorie” and effectively demonized. If any of my readers are able to consistently function well on 400 calorie meals, please email me. I’d love to hear how you do it without losing both your job and your friends.
In our calorie-centric culture, those who call “foul” whenever calorie counting is brought up are condemned as wackos with no understanding of the laws of nature.
Well, I am a scientist. I studied chemistry (and a whole lotta other science) in college. And I can tell ya that watching your calories is demonstrably inefficient at giving you the power to effectively lose (or gain) weight.
I’ve written about this at length elsewhere on this blog, but for this post all you really need to know is that the accuracy of stated calorie counts is somewhere between 8% and 18%. Using this factor, you should expect to gain 21-47 pounds per year if you were to obsessively try to count every calorie that entered and left your body.
Doesn’t sound like a sound weight-control plan to me, either.
The “calories from fat” amount demonizes fat, which I’ll deal with in the next section.
Bottom Line: Ignore the calorie count. It is way off. And way off just doesn’t work for weight management.
Fat and Cholesterol and Sodium, Oh My!
Next up on a nutrition label are the nutrients, and the % daily value (%DV) for each.
- The “Good” – The FDA has determined that Americans are not getting enough fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron, and thus list all of these in an effort to boost consumption of food products that are rich in these nutrients.
- The “Bad” – Much like the Three Furies of Greek mythology, the trifecta of fat, cholesterol, and sodium invokes dread in all those who so much as speak their names. However, this interpretation falls flat once you understand that humans have thrived for millions of years on meat-heavy diets that include plenty of all three of these nutrients.
- The Ugly – Much like how calorie counts are significantly higher than listed, all nutrient counts on nutrition labels are terribly inaccurate. But since the FDA only stipulates that these values be within 20% of their actual values, this discrepancy is unlikely to ever change.
I have no problem with diets high in fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. What I do have a problem with is scaring people away from fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
Nutritionism is the relatively new science of making dietary recommendations based on the “invisible” nutrients found in food rather than the food itself, which is how human beings successfully thrived for the entirety of our existence up until the 1970s. Although this field has helped us bring new light to the effect that food has upon our bodies, it is still too new to give us any realistic and practical advice on how to eat.
Across all cultures and times, you will find societies that have excelled on high-fat diets, high-carb diets, high-calorie diets, high-cholesterol diets, low-sodium diets, high-sodium diets, and just about every other version you could come up with.
In our modern society, someone who survives off fast food and microwave dinners supplemented heavily with pills, powders, and shakes is more likely to be viewed as “health conscious” than someone eating plenty of red meat, eggs, full-fat dairy, and starchy vegetables.
Where did we go wrong?
The notion of restricting some nutrients while eating as much of others as possible is completely foreign to humans. Our senses are not able to percieve nutrients directly, but rather the food that contains them. We eat poultry, not “lean meat.” We eat potatoes, not “high-glycemic carbs.” We eat butter, not “saturated fat.”
This inherent understanding of food did not lead us to succumb to diseases of civilization such as obesity, cancer, and diabetes. Humans were able to spread out of Africa to such diverse locations as the arctic tundra and the deserts of the Sahara, from the Andes mountains to the isolated islands of the Pacific. All these amazing physical feats were accomplished without even knowing what the hell a calorie was, much less how to count nutrients.
Eat a diet of primarily whole, unprocessed foods (but make sure you cheat just enough that you don’t use up all your willpower). Lots of meat and vegetables. Fruit, eggs, nuts, and seeds as you see fit. Dairy, grains, and beans if your body can handle them (but test them out if you aren’t sure). Limit sugar, flour, vegetable oil, and food products made from refined soy, corn, and wheat. That will take care of all your % daily values without you ever needing to break out the calculator.
Bottom Line: The problem is not what’s in your food, but what kind of food you are eating. Ignore all %DVs for nutrients, which are inaccurate anyway.
Hope At Last!
What a downer of a post, huh? I’m pleading with you, for the sake of your health and your sanity, to ignore everything that we have been told to focus all our energies on. Is there any light at the end of this dark tunnel? Any beacon of hope whatsoever?
As it turns out, there is.
Behind the intimidating and inaccurate nutrition facts, behind the outrageous (and often unproven) health claims touted, and behind the slick marketing of the food manufacturers, there actually is a part of the packaging that you can use to make intelligent decisions in order to eat better.
Enter: the ingredients list.
As opposed to the nutrition data, the list of ingredients is highly useful in making intelligent decisions for eating well. Instead of striving to be a quantitative analysis and failing miserably, the ingredients are a qualitative analysis, and quite insightful. Here are three steps for you to follow to make the most of it:
- The Fewer The Ingredients, The Better – Quick, how many ingredients are listed on the back? If you can’t tell immediately, the food most likely falls into the “bad” category. Food producers often pad out their wares with fillers and additives which, more often than not, will lead to fat gain. No ingredients? That’s the best case scenario. One to five ingredients? You’re still good. When you start to get much more than that, it might be best to just leave it on the shelf (or be realistic and understand that this should be considered to be part of a cheat meal).
- No “Shampoo Ingredients” – Take a look at those ingredients again. Do you recognize them? Are they the kinds of thing your grandmother would have made dinner with? Or do they look like the kind of unpronounceable chemicals you would find in a bottle of shampoo? Avoid that stuff at all costs.
- There is No Step 3 – Seriously, just focus on short ingredient lists that don’t sound like an inventory of an organic chemistry lab and you’re in the clear.
A while back I wrote a post with Summer Tomato’s flow chart on how to find real food at the supermarket. I suggest you check it out again and make sure you keep it handy whenever you are picking up food at the grocery store.
Although the nutrition facts label found on most foods is a noble effort to help consumers understand what exactly it is that they are putting into their bodies, it fails on multiple counts. It is based on unproven science that high-calorie meals are unhealthy and saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium should be avoided. Its listed values vary widely from what the food actually contains, which makes it functionally useless for those who are worried about calories, fat, and the other nutrients that are so demonized.
Fortunately, the ingredients list found near this nutrition label turns out to be very useful in most cases. By looking for foods with minimal ingredients and avoiding products laden with synthetic materials, you as the consumer are truly empowered to make healthy decisions about what to pick up at the supermarket.