How to read a nutrition label 

Some are full of scary ingredients, impossible to pronounce, reading like a horror novel.  Some manufacturers disguise the presence of less-healthy ingredients, which make reading more like a mystery.  

But the truth is, nutrition labels empower consumers to take charge of their well-being.  And recent amendments to 1990 mandatory labeling legislation is making the information easier to decipher.

Experts argue that nutrition labels save lives by taking the mystery out of what's in your food.  In turn, these labels may help drastically cut healthcare costs.  For instance,

Canada recently made food-product labels obligatory and predicts a savings of $5 billion through increased productivity and lower healthcare costs associated with cancer, diabetes, coronary artery disease and stroke over the next two decades (CMAJ 2003; 168:887).

Perhaps the most critical aspect of a nutrition label, and one of the easiest to overlook, is the "serving size."  A consumer's idea of one serving size and the manufacturer's interpretation often vary radically.  For instance, one manufacturer of cut green beans states there are three adult servings in a tiny 13-ounce can, each with 400 milligrams of salt.  Not too bad, considering the recommended maximum daily allowance is 2,400 milligrams.  But how many people consider four ounces (1/2 cup) of green beans a single serving?  It may be reasonable to assume that many adults will eat at least half the can.  In this case, the salt intake rises to 600 milligrams per serving -- one-fourth of the recommended daily allowance.

When deciphering a nutrition label, it is vital to compare that information with the serving size.  From a fat and

calorie standpoint, there is no harm in eating an entire can of the above-mentioned green beans.  But, if you are watching your sodium intake, 1,200 milligrams from a single side dish is far from optimal.  Instead, try steaming some fresh green beans with a little onion or garlic.

Once you get into the habit of reading and understanding nutrition labels, you will wonder how some of the "health-food" manufacturers can sleep at night!  As an example, one of the most popular weight-loss products on the market is a snack bar virtually identical to a Butterfinger candy bar with the exception of some added vitamins.  Of course, you would never know it unless you compared the two nutrition labels side-by-side.

Don't be fooled by fat. Some "high-fat" foods are actually good for you.  Avocados, salmon and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids and raw, organic nuts are more nutritious than many "low-fat" packaged items.  When enjoyed in moderation, the types of fats in these wonder foods improve lipid profiles and fight cancer and heart disease.  

Found primarily in margarine, packaged cookies, bakery goods and snacks;and to a lesser extent in meat and dairy;trans-saturated fats, also known as trans fats, are linked with increased blood cholesterol levels.  These high levels, in turn, are tied to an elevated risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer.

Infusing vegetable oil with hydrogen creates trans fat.  The chemical reaction converts the vegetable oil into a raging, artery-clogging monster.

The challenge in steering clear of trans fats is that they are rarely labeled on ingredient lists. For example, most consumers know that soy, the source of products like tofu, is nutritious.  But in its altered state, "hydrogenated soybean oil" actually becomes a trans fat!  Red flags to look out for are "hydrogenated" and "partially hydrogenated."

Up until now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not required that trans fats be included on nutrition labels in the U.S.  In response to demands from consumers and health professionals, the agency has recently

amended its Nutritional Labeling and Education Act.  By 2006, all food products must have information on trans fats listed immediately under the line indicating saturated fatty acids. w

Karen and Clark Voss have a family wellness chiropractic clinic in Savannah at 5704 Skidaway Rd. Call 356-5886.


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