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How to Read Food Labels

Diet / 25% fewer Calories / Reduced Calorie / Serving Size

Frequently, "diet food" is not different from regular food. A loaf of bread claiming to have 25% fewer Calories per slice than the regular bread may actually be sliced 25% thinner and sell for a higher price than the regular bread. Reduction of the serving size is often used by manufacturers as a way of reducing the calories per serving. As a consequence, if the amount of fat or other nutrient falls below 0.5 gram per serving, the manufacturer may round it to zero.

Coffee creamers, for example, may contain 30% or 40% fat, but by defining the serving size as one teaspoon, the manufacturer may claim that one serving has zero fat, even though one teaspoon may not be a sufficient amount to whiten a cup of coffee. It may take two or three servings to do the job. Examination of the weight of the serving sizes and the ingredients list can frequently be used to identify this type of misinformation.

Pam Cooking spray
Copyright © International Home Foods

Question: How can a product that is almost pure fat be advertised as Fat Free?
Answer: By reducing the serving size so that the amount of fat per serving is less than 0.5 grams.

The primary ingredient of the PAM Cooking spray illustrated here is canola oil, which is marked with a note 'ADDS A TRIVIAL AMOUNT OF FAT' and the Nutrition Facts proclaim: Total Fat 0g.  Why?  Because the serving size has been defined to be a 1/3 second spray containing 0.266g of product. Since this is less than half a gram (0.5g) per serving, it can be rounded to zero. The line above the Nutrition Facts, states that 'A 1 SECOND SPRAY COVERS A 10" SKILLET'. A one-second spray would contain approximately 0.8g of fat with 7 calories and would have to be reported on the Nutrition Facts. The manufacturer has chosen to reduce the serving size in order to avoid reporting the fat in the Nutrition Facts and to be able to add the slogan "for Fat Free Cooking" in the front of the can. Technically, this complies with the FDA requirements.

I Can't Believe it's Not Butter spray
I Can't Believe it's Not Butter spray

The I Can't Believe it's Not Butter spray, which is an emulsion of soybean oil and water, also claims to have zero calories and fat if you use 1.25 sprays (0.25g). How are you supposed to accomplish a .25 spray?

Water, Liquid Soybean Oil, Salt, Sweet Cream Buttermilk, Xanthan Gum, Soy Lecithin, Polysorbate 60, Lactic Acid, (Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate, Calcium Disodium EDTA) as Preservatives, Artificial Flavor, Colored with Beta Carotene, Vitamin A (Palmitate).

No Trans Fatty Acids

Trans fats have been nicknamed "stealth fats" because they have not been shown on food labels. Some food products may show 17g of Total Fat, 3.5g of Saturated Fat, and nothing else. What kind of fat is the remaining 13.5g? Nobody knows without doing a laboratory analysis. Technically, trans fats are unsaturated fatty acids with uncommon configurations that have been implicated as causing cardiovascular diseases. Some margarines, like Benecol margarine, claim to have no trans fatty acids. The ingredients, however, show the presence of partially hydrogenated oil that cannot be manufactured without creating trans fatty acids. The claim takes advantage of the FDA regulation that allows rounding to zero any ingredients that account for less than 0.5 grams per serving. Reduction of serving sizes to implement this type of misinformation became more frequent when the new FDA regulations requiring disclosure of trans fats went into effect in 2006.

Benecol Margarine
Copyright © McNeil - PPC, Inc.

Fake Foods - almost nothing natural

Fake foods are usually produced to compete against more expensive real products. For example, margarine made from hydrogenated oils was introduced as a cheaper alternative to butter. Fake products are sometimes produced to meet the needs of specific niche markets. Vegans, who consume no animal products, will drink soy milk and eat imitation meats made from tofu or soy protein. For the most part, fake foods are manufactured from inferior products and bought by unwary consumers who do not read labels. Below is an example of a carton of fake milk from the dairy section of a supermarket. A customer who is in a hurry will glance at the package and read "All the Goodness of Milk" in bright red letters, and maybe notice the "2% Reduced Fat" caption. The small gray letters that say "Dairy Beverage" may not register as a warning that this is NOT milk and that it is necessary to read the label. The ingredient list is very clear. The first ingredient is WATER! This package basically contains watered-down milk with emulsifiers, thickeners, and artificial sweeteners. It seems almost perverse to print "All the Goodness of Milk" on this package. Let the buyer beware!

Imitation Milk  
Click to Enlarge
Imitation Milk Ingredients

The following "buttery spread" was served at a Waffle House restaurant in Virginia. Although the label says that one serving contains zero grams of trans fat, the ingredients show partially hydrogenated soybean oil as the major ingredient after water. Further examination of the list of ingredients shows only pectin, which is a gelling agent, some "natural" flavors, and whey as the only non-artificial ingredients; everything else came out of a chemical laboratory. The statement "CONTAINS: MILK" and the D next to the Kosher symbol Ⓤ are advisory notes for persons who need to avoid dairy because of allergies or for religious reasons.

Pride buttery spread  Pride buttery spread at the Waffle House

Gobbledegook, Mumbo Jumbo, and mystery ingredients.

Sometimes it is impossible to identify the ingredients in a product by reading the label. This is allowed by the Food and Drug Administration for ingredients that are present only in small quantities, such as "artificial flavor", "natural flavor", or "spices". What are these flavors and spices? Only the manufacturer knows. In addition, food labels may contain extensive lists of names for food colors, preservatives, texturizers, emulsifiers, and other ingredients whose chemical structure and function is incomprehensible to the average consumer. An abundance of additives is more prevalent in "artificial foods" such as candy bars and margarines which are created in a laboratory, rather than harvested from nature.

Ferrero Rocher Chocolates
Chocolates with
Modified Palm Oil

As already mentioned, when the number of grams of saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat do not add up to the amount of Total Fat in the Nutrition Label, you can be sure that there are some mystery fats, more than likely hydrogenated. Ferrero chocolate candies from Italy contain "modified" palm oil. Is the oil modified by hydrogenation? It is virtually impossible to answer this question for imported products. Since palm oil is liquid at room temperature, the fat with the higher melting point needed for chocolates can be produced either by hydrogenation or by interesterification which involves hydrolyzing the fat molecules to remove polyunsaturated fatty acids and then substituting saturated fatty acids. Partially hydrogenated fats are sometimes sneaked into the ingredient list under alternate names like "margarine" or "shortening", specially in baked goods. One of the latest mysteries is the fatty acid composition of "mono- and diglycerides". Are these composed of saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, or what? Manufacturers provide no details and don't even acknowledge monoglycerides and diglycerides to be fats. Other food ingredients that contribute fatty acids of unknown chemical structure are fatty acid esters of sucrose, sorbitol (sorbitan esters), and polyglycerol (glyceran esters).

When several products are produced using the same equipment, the label may contain a statement warning that it may contain traces of peanuts, even when the product has no peanuts in the ingredient list. These warnings are intended for people with food allergies who can become violently ill by ingesting just a trace of an allergen. The warnings also decrease the liability of the manufacturer if someone becomes sick from eating the product.

Finally, there are the claims that make a big deal out of nothing. For example, the statements "cholesterol-free" and "no cholesterol" are meaningless on vegetable products, because cholesterol is present only in animal products. All vegetables are cholesterol-free. Nevertheless, manufacturers frequently use these claims as a marketing promotion to increase sales, and include the information on the Nutrition Facts. The label for PAM Cooking spray, for example, shows "Cholesterol 0 mg", even though all the ingredients are from vegetable sources.

FDA Specifications for Health Claims and Descriptive Terms

The FDA provides guidelines about the claims and descriptions that
manufacturers may use in food labeling to promote their products[1]:
Claim Requirements that must be met
before using the claim in food labeling
Fat-Free Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, with no added fat or oil
Low fat 3 grams or less of fat per serving
Less fat 25% or less fat than the comparison food
Saturated Fat Free Less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat and 0.5 grams of trans-fatty acids per serving
Cholesterol-Free Less than 2 mg cholesterol per serving, and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving
Low Cholesterol 20 mg or less cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving
Reduced Calorie At least 25% fewer calories per serving than the comparison food
Low Calorie 40 calories or less per serving
Extra Lean Less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol per (100 gram) serving of meat, poultry or seafood
Lean Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 g of saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol per (100 gram) serving of meat, poultry or seafood
Light (fat) 50% or less of the fat than in the comparison food (ex: 50% less fat than our regular cheese)
Light (calories) 1/3 fewer calories than the comparison food
High-Fiber 5 grams or more fiber per serving
Sugar-Free Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving
or Salt-Free
Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
Low Sodium 140 mg or less per serving
Very Low Sodium 35 mg or less per serving
Healthy A food low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and contains at least 10% of the Daily Values for vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber.
"High", "Rich in" or "Excellent Source" 20% or more of the Daily Value for a given nutrient per serving
"Less", "Fewer" or
At least 25% less of a given nutrient or calories than the comparison food
"Low", "Little", "Few", or "Low Source of" An amount that would allow frequent consumption of the food without exceeding the Daily Value for the nutrient - but can only make the claim as it applies to all similar foods
"Good Source Of", "More", or "Added" The food provides 10% more of the Daily Value for a given nutrient than the comparison food
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  1. Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide
  2. Irradiation of Food and Packaging: An Overview
  3. FDA Food Labeling
Fair Use.  Small portions of copyrighted material are included here for review purposes.

When evaluating diet advertisements, keep in mind that the Federal Trade Commission has determined that any product claims are false if they state that you can lose more than two pounds per week for more than four weeks without diet and exercise.

© Copyright  - Antonio Zamora