When Was the Last Time You Really Read a Food Label?

It's a helpful health-intake tracking behavior.

Posted Oct 03, 2019

Whether we pay much attention to them or not, we are accustomed to seeing food labels on packaged foods. It is reassuring to be able to spot a food whose salt, fat or sugar contents are high or, conversely, notice that a food will provide a substantial amount of a needed nutrient. But having information about the nutrient contents of food on its container is relatively recent. The legal requirement for food labeling dates back just about 30 years; the law was passed in 1990. Prior to that, manufacturers could, at their own discretion, inform the buyers of the ingredients and, for many foods, the disclosure was limited to sodium, fat, and perhaps calories.

Disclosure of the contents of processed foods took a long time to occur. After President Zachary Taylor died from eating contaminated fruit and milk at a picnic, the government became involved in the safety of our food supply. The process is ongoing. The adulteration of processed food was common during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Water was routinely added to milk, and colored with chalk or plaster. Leaves, sand, and dirt were added to coffee, tea and spices, and lead added to wine and beer. This only stopped in the 20th century. But whether or not food contained the nutrients advertised had to wait until almost the end of the century.      

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a nutrition facts label must be on most packaged foods and beverages. The label shows the total number of servings in the container and the size of the servings. The food label doesn’t assume that the eater will consume only the recommended serving, however.  If one cookie equals one serving, the label on the package will have information about what is contained in one cookie, and also for the entire package. This is helpful for the math-impaired who have trouble adding the contents for one cookie by the 3 others in the container.

The information on the label is in a large font to be read in a supermarket without glasses. It is listed on the left side of the label in the following order: fat, saturated and trans, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, total sugar, plus, if sugar is added, the label will say, “includes added sugar”, and finally, protein.

The right side of the label shows the Percent Daily Value (“DV”) of the nutrients listed, such as fat, protein, vitamin D, or whatever the major nutrients are in the food. The DV provides information about how the content of specific nutrients in one serving contribute to the total amount you should be eating each day. For example, if the label on a container of oat milk says that one serving contributes 20% of the calcium you need every day, you know that you have to get 80% of your calcium from other foods, or drink more oat milk.  My container of vegetable broth states on its label that a one-cup serving contains 14% of sodium and 0% of fat, carbohydrate, and protein. This means that if I have two cups of broth, I would be consuming 28%, or more than a quarter, of all the sodium I should be eating each day. And I’d better eat other foods to obtain some nutrients.

There is tiny font toward the bottom of the label stating that the percent daily value, the DV, of the nutrients listed, is based on the needs of someone consuming 2200 calories each day. The actual amounts of nutrients required can be found on the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”) Dietary Supplement Label Database web site. For example, if you look at the fiber and fat requirements on the list, you will see that you should be eating 28 grams of fiber, and no more 78 grams of fat. The label on my jar of peanut butter states that 1 serving, 2 tablespoons, provides 21% of the fat that should be eaten daily, and only 9% of the fiber. Conversely, ½ cup of canned dark red kidney beans provides 1 % of fat and 28% of fiber. Thus, food labels can be useful in making decisions about the relative nutritional value of foods and, like reading the label on the box of vegetable broth, tell us if we are buying flavored water. 

Since the serving size is used to inform us about the amount of nutrients we are eating if we adhere to that portion, it might be important to consider what determines serving size. Supposedly it is based on what a typical person might eat. This makes sense—or does it? I look at a package of rice crackers and the serving size is 17 crackers. Really? Would a typical person count the crackers and then suddenly stop at 17?  Or eat 4 and stop? Many adults who drink milk, they do so after it has been poured in coffee or tea or cereal, rather than in an eight-ounce glass. To know how much calcium, for example, is being obtained from the milk, it would be necessary to add up the amount in those splashes of milk in a coffee cup, or measure the amount poured on a bowl of cereal. For those who chug liquids such as juice or milk directly from the container, who knows how much they are consuming?

Sometimes the serving size is small so the calories on the food label are relatively low.  A half a cup is a typical serving for ice cream and other frozen confections, such as frozen yogurt. Recently while food shopping, a close relative picked up a pint of a gourmet ice cream, looked at the food label and commented that the calories were reasonable.  They were for a half-cup serving but I knew that this individual rarely limited consumption to that amount. 

In an ideal world, we would devote several hours to scrutinizing food labels to ensure that we are choosing the healthiest foods possible, avoiding overdosing on fat, sugar, and salt, and obtaining all the nutrients our bodies need. But perhaps in an ideal world, we would not be eating processed foods at all, and hence would not need the labels.