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Food Labels: Fact or Fiction?

How often do you pick up items at the grocery and scan the labels? Do you understand them? Ever wonder if they are really accurate? Many consumers probably glance at them, but based on the current obesity rate today it seems as if people should pay more attention.

Selling food is a big business. Through clever marketing campaigns and tricky labeling, many companies are able to influence your feelings and buying decisions. However, food makers are required to follow guidelines set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Such guidelines include listing health claims and noting the % of daily values per serving.

Health claims link a food or one of its components to a specific disease or health related condition. Classic examples include whole grain cereals advertising that they may lower cholesterol (General Mills) and more recently yogurt products (Yoplait) proclaiming that (3) servings of yogurt a day will help you burn more fat. Fortunately, these claims must be based on solid research. Moreover, only approved health claims may appear on foods that meet the set requirements.

What about daily values? Typically, the label reveals the % of daily value for total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber and protein, which is based on consuming 2,000 calories per day. The daily value does make it easy to compare similar foods because the serving size is usually the same. The tricky part lies in discovering two critical pieces of information. First, the amount of calories required per day varies from person to person based on age and activity level. Second, it is necessary to determine if your serving size is smaller or larger than the serving size listed on the food label. Based on this information, consumers can begin to piece their own nutritional puzzle together.

However, be cautious as you can still be fooled by labels. For example, have you ever purchased fat free cooking spray? Many people assume it is fat free. The reality is that the serving size is so small (1/3 second spray or .25 grams) that it is virtually impossible to spray enough to coat a pan without exceeding the serving size by at least threefold. Another red flag may be the fact that there are 557 servings in one 6 ounce can. Suddenly, in a larger serving size, it is no longer fat free. Wow! Is that legal? Yes, simply because in the serving size listed the fat value is negligible. Ironically, the fat free product managed to add fat to your meal.

The bottom line is this: people should eat a balanced diet based on their activity level, age and caloric needs. Understanding all of this information simply serves as a roadmap to directing consumers to make more informed and healthier food choices.


Understanding Food Labels

American Dietetic Association

Brian Schiff, PT, CSCS, is a respected author, physical therapist and fitness expert. You can sign-up for his free online newsletter @

Copyright 2005 Brian Schiff


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