C is for Cookie: September 2006

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Nutrition Labels - what's the score?

Do you know how to read those Nutrition Facts tables on the labels of most foods nowadays? If the answer is no, you're not alone. Some good doctors at the Center for Health Services Research at Vanderbilt University did a study with 200 well-educated participants but only 22% could identify the number of carbs in 2 pieces of bread, even while looking right at the nutrition facts table.

Why all the confusion? It's not like you need anything more than simple math to read these tables. But there's more to it than that. Manufacturers are now required to put tables on their food products and naturally they want their products to come out looking as attractive as possible. In some cases manufacturers give nutrition data for portions of food that are much smaller than what one person would eat. And many people nowadays eat portions that are much larger than what they should be eating. We owe it to ourselves to become experts in reading those nutrition labels, and understanding what "serving size" means. Nutrition facts are given for a single serving which can be anything from a few crackers to an entire hamburger. Each label is different and so reading that a serving has 100 calories is meaningless unless you understand how many of those servings make it into your mouth.

For example, the serving size on the side of my cereal box is a generous 55g (some companies only show values for 30g). Apparently that's 3/4 cup of cereal. However, when I poured 55g of cereal into my regular bowl on my kitchen scale, it was a lot less than what I eat each morning. So, I'm not eating the mere 190 calories the nutrition table promises - without milk. I'm probably getting a lot more like 270 calories before I even pour my milk into the bowl.

Once you know what you are eating, compared to the serving size, you can then calculate how many calories, carbs, proteins, fat, fibre, etc you are eating when you consume that food. It's important to look at all that information together too. For example, perhaps you are eating a handful of nuts that adds up to 170 calories. When you notice on the nutrition label that 15 grams are fat and only 6g and 5g of protein and carbs respectively, you see that you are eating mostly fat. In fact, 135 of those 170 calories are actually fat calories (because each 1 gram of fat equals 9 calories whereas 1 gram of protein or carbohydrate only provide 4 calories). This snack is more than 2/3 fat!!

It's no wonder that many people are getting heavier, because most of us have no idea how many calories and fats we are consuming each day. It's worth visiting McDonald's website to try out their Nutrition Calculator. That's an eye opener, and a great service, although I'm not sure it's going to encourage inquiring minds to want to eat at McDonald's ever again. This tool allows you to choose items for the menu and then it will tally their caloric and nutrient values. I chose a Oreo McFlurry which even large-sized is only a cup and a half of sweet yummy ice creamy goodness. Even though you'd assume ice cream is made from milk and therefore a McFlurry might be somewhat healthy, this snack weighs in at almost 700 calories. That's almost half the calories a small woman needs for an entire day! I guess next time I need to get a sinful treat I'll stick to my own homemade cookies whose nutrient values I have assessed and accepted.

For more information on reading Nutrition Facts labels, the Mayo Clinic has a wonderful interactive tool that allows you to point your mouse at different parts of the table and learn about them.

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