Jessica Dean and Robin Rodriguez

The United Kingdom is currently embroiled in a labeling controversy. Consumer groups there are contesting new methods of displaying the nutrient content of foods for fear they will confuse consumers. The Food Standards Agency (similar to our USDA) has a set standard for food label guidelines in the UK. Five major food companies want to release new food packages that include a nutrition fact label on the front of the food package that highlights some nutrient values. Adding fuel to the fire is a new labeling concept about to be released by the FSA that includes a traffic-light style, color-coded system to direct consumers towards healthier choices.

While this may seem like a convenient way to compare the fat content of cheese as you breeze through the dairy aisle, it is possible to see how labels that differ from food to food can cause confusion.  In the United States, the Nutrition Facts label became the standard format when the Nutrition Education and Labeling Act (NELA) was passed in 1990. Before NELA, there was no regulation of terms like “fat-free” on food labels and the contents of a nutrition label were left to the discretion of the food manufacturer. Although the standard label was designed to increase understanding, many are still confused by the label and its contents. Although we know Cal Poly students are never confused, we just thought we would include a brief explanation of some terms on the food label to help you out the next time you go shopping.

First off, not all foods are required to contain the Nutrition Facts label. For example, foods like wine that have no nutritional value, are not required to include a nutritional label. Also, if there is no room for the label on the product’s packaging, they don’t have to include it. However, companies will usually include a toll-free number that you can call to learn about the product’s nutritional value.

            When you look at a food label, it’s important to check the serving size first.  Serving size can vary by product and even by brand.  The serving size listed on a food package is an example of how much of the food the average person is expected to consume, which may or may not be the entire contents of a package. The serving size is also listed in a format that is easy for the average person to understand and follow. For example, check out the label on that bottle of Pepsi in your hand right now, you might notice that it says two or maybe even 2.5 servings per bottle. The rest of the information on the food label is based on the calculation for one serving.  So, if you drink the entire bottle, be prepared to multiply nutrient content by the servings you consumed.

            Below the information on the serving size and calorie content is the information on percent daily values of nutrients.  The “%DV” is the amount of the nutrient that you would consume if you were following the USDA Dietary Guidelines for a 2,000-calorie diet. This percentage may not apply to everyone and there is a trick to understanding it.  Follow the “5-20 rule” when reading the daily value column.  If a nutrient is less than 5 percent daily value on the label, the food is a poor source of the nutrient, if the nutrient is greater than 20 percent of daily value; the food is considered a good source.  However, remember that more does not always equal better. There is a %DV for fat on nutrition labels as well. 

            It’s hard to miss the brightly colored box on the front of a food package that touts its health benefits from being “light” to “fat-free”.  Did you know that the government has a standard for these values? For example, in order for a product to be fat-free or sugar-free, it needs to have half a gram or less of fat or sugar.  A product can call itself “light” if it has 1/3 of the calories or 1/2 of the fat of the original version.

So, there is a lot of good information that can be attained from reading the nutrition fact label. It is important to know how many servings a particular product has and to know how much of them you are eating. Take the coke bottle for instance, the bottle is really 2.5 servings of soda and many do not even realize that, and later wonder where those extra pounds came from. So, Cal Poly, until the United States decides to include a nifty color-coded nutrition fact labeling system, be wise in your food choices and always flip the package and take a look at the nutrition label.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.