Wednesday, December 19, 2012

12. Nutrition Labels

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The government mandates that all refined food products have a nutrition label. This is so you can make more informed choices.

Now the healthiest choices are foods that have no label at all (lettuce, apples, steak…). If we lived 200 years age, that is all that would be available to us (and the odds are very good we wouldn’t have diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. Of course, we also wouldn’t have Penicillin or indoor plumbing.)

The truth is that we live in the 21st century and we do have to deal with processed food. So it is important that we learn to read labels so we can make wise choices.

The first thing the nutrition label shows you is how big a serving is. Be careful when comparing different brands of the same products. There is no standardization of what a serving is.

I was comparing several foods the other day. One cereal listed a serving as one cup while the same cereal by a different manufacturer said a serving was ¾ of a cup.

One brand of bread says a serving is one slice, while the next one on the shelf says it is two slices.

One chocolate bar says a serving is 40 ounces, the next says it is 36, while the third says it’s 12.

Usually similar foods have the same serving size, but occasionally you need to do a little math (good thing all of our phones have calculators in them!)

The next thing listed is how many servings are in a container. Again, be careful. Some small cans of soup for example, have two servings (when everyone eats the whole thing in one sitting!).

The label then tells you how many calories in a serving, how many calories from fat, and what kinds of fat it has.

Remember that mono-unsaturated is a GOOD fat (full of vitamins), poly-unsaturated is OK. Saturated fats from olive oil and butter are OK, but all the trans-fats are very bad. Very few processed foods actually use olive oil or butter. They are too expensive and more likely to spoil on the shelf.

The label then tells you how much cholesterol. This isn’t really important as eating cholesterol isn’t what makes your blood cholesterol rise. This info is there solely for PR purposes. Gummy bears and diet coke have no cholesterol, but that doesn’t mean they are good for you.

Sodium is next. The RDA (Recommended Daily Allotment) for sodium is 2400mg. This one adds up fast, but is really only a concern for those with sodium-sensitive high blood pressure.

Then we have total carbs followed by fiber and sugars. These “sugars” are not all cane sugar, but may mean some natural simple carbohydrates (though usually they mean added processed sugar).

Fiber contains no calories itself, but is vitally important to your health.

Then we list protein.

Most labels list the percentage of RDA for several vitamins and minerals, but this isn’t standardized so it may vary from label to label. The percentage is based on a diet of 2000 calories, so if you are an inactive woman, the nutrient would be a higher percentage of your diet than listed. But if you are an active man it would be less than the percentage stated. (It’s not at all fair, but men naturally have a higher metabolism than women. Even if they are the same height, weight and activity level, the man will take more calories to just stay alive.)

Below most nutrition labels is the ingredients list. The law demands that the ingredients are listed in order by weight present in the product.

So, in comparing two different products, the one with the lowest calories, sodium and fat but the highest protein and fiber is the better product.

What if two products are equal in most areas but, say, one is higher in protein and the other in fiber? Which one do you choose?

It depends on what you are buying the product for.

In my loaf bread I favor fiber since I don’t rely on my bread to provide protein (bread is what I use to hold my protein so I can eat it neater).

But in a snack bar, I favor the protein because the whole reason I use snack bars is for a quick protein fix. If you are having a problem with constipation, however, you may want to favor the higher fiber bars.

This is an individual call. RDA stands for “Recommended Dietary Allowance.” This is the amount the government determined was necessary to prevent major deficiency disease but does not reflect the optimum amount for health.

For example, the RDA for vitamin C is 60mg. This is what is necessary to prevent scurvy.

However, researchers have discovered that those who take 500mg a day have far fewer colds and flues. The research is still ongoing to find the best levels for most nutrients.

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