Food labels can help you make wise dietary decisions – but only if you understand their terminology. Here’s a brief history of food label nutrition panels and answers to some frequently asked questions.
A Brief History of Food Labels
In the US, government-sanctioned food labels have been in place since World War II. With national defense in mind, scientists determined the standard daily allowances of various nutrients needed to maintain our armed forces, civilians and overseas populations.
The labels in use today reflect a 1968 revision of those original recommendations. Since our knowledge about nutrition has advanced further since 1968, take the recommended daily allowances on nutrition labels with a proverbial grain of salt.
FAQ about Nutrition Labels
1. What are sugar alcohols?
The carbohydrate section of your food label might list sugars and sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols or polyols are fruit-derived sweeteners. Since they’re relatively low calorie, they’re often used as sugar substitutes.
In small amounts, sugar alcohols are especially recommended for diabetics. They don’t cause a spike in blood sugar and they require virtually no insulin to be metabolized. What’s the hitch? When consumed in large amounts, sugar alcohols can cause bloating and diarrhea.
2. What should I know about the fat categories on a nutrition label?
Food labels originally only listed total fat. This was misleading because some fats are harmful and some fats are beneficial to the human body. Food labels today list total fat plus subcategories of saturated and unsaturated fats.
Saturated fat contributes to high cholesterol levels. It is found primarily in animal-derived products such as beef, pork, butter, cheese and milk. Some plant foods containing saturated fats include coconuts, palm oil and cocoa butter.
Unsaturated fats include both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These are considered healthy fats because they lower your blood cholesterol level. Unsaturated fats are derived primarily from nuts, seeds, plants and fish. Most fat in your diet should come from these sources.
Since 2006, food labels have listed an additional subcategory of saturated fats: trans fats. Trans fats are especially dangerous and believed to raise cholesterol levels. They contribute to heart disease more than other saturated fats do. While trans fats are naturally present in small amounts in animal products, they’re also created during hydrogenation, which is the process used to make margarine, shortening and various cooking oils. Intake of trans fats should be limited to just 1% of one’s average daily calorie intake.
3. Which statistics must be included on a food label?
Carbohydrates, protein, sodium and fats are always listed on a food label. Since October 2010, the only other nutrients that must be listed include vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. It’s conventional to also include dietary fiber, cholesterol and a range of other nutrients such as folic acid and manganese if they’re present.
Nutrition labels can be misleading. Food manufacturers are permitted to round to the nearest half gram. Therefore a product might contain .4 grams of trans fat but be labeled as containing zero grams.
4. Do the published Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) apply to me?
RDAs are different for everyone. Daily calorie requirements vary with gender, age, weight, activity level and other factors. Food label RDAs are usually based on a 2,000 calorie diet without taking into account special individual health requirements.