Reading between the Labels: Are Today’s Nutrition Facts Enough?

BY RENUKA RAMCHANDRAN

It’s 12:15 and you’re sitting in class waiting to be dismissed but class doesn’t end for   another half hour. All you can think about is what you’re going to eat for lunch. Your mind starts to wander as you consider all of your options. You say you’re on a health crunch, but is a salad really going to cut it? That grilled chicken in the dining hall seems exceptional today. There could be those soft, gooey chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps, today is the day to take a visit to Chipotle.

It is estimated that the average person makes over 200 decisions regarding food each day. It comes as no surprise that consumers rely on the “Nutrition Facts” labels found on the back of food products to keep track of calories, check fat and sugar content, and ultimately decide if what they are putting in their body is actually healthy. Food labels have come far in a short period of time. Before the 1970’s, food labels didn’t even exist, as there was no particular demand for nutritional information, with most households using basic ingredients to make home-cooked meals. However, as the presence of processed foods increased over time, buyers began requesting information that would help them understand the products they purchased. This led the Food and Drug Administration to consider developing a system for identifying the nutritional aspect of food.

Nowadays, with processed foods taking over the supermarket, nutritional labels have become an integral part of our daily food decisions. The question is: How much do nutritional labels actually help us?

There is no doubt that food labels have come a long way from their birth in 1970. From developing daily reference values to establishing specific nutrients to be listed, that little box of information has arguably become the most important factor in determining whether or not we pick up a product at the grocery store. However, some experts, such as nutritionist Dr. Sheah Rarback, would say that the information provided is important but never enough. In fact, the labels can be misleading. Along with the lack of regulation on the word “natural”, there is ambiguity in the way certain nutrients are listed. For instance, let’s consider the listing of the sugar content. This refers to the total sugar found in the product, which includes both the added sugar as well as the natural sugar that may have already existed before it was processed. Many nutritionistsare arguing for the separation of these two on the nutrition label, so that consumers can be aware of the additional sugar present in the foods they are eating. Nutritionists have also found that the percentages of the daily-recommended value found beside each nutrient can be confusing for the average consumer to apply to calculating their own diet.

In another situation, let’s say your doctor tells you to watch your fat intake. You come across olive oil and see that it is around 15 grams of fat in one tablespoon. Does that mean you should avoid olive oil? “Not necessarily,” Dr. Rarback states. “Olive oil, in moderation, can actually help you manage your blood cholesterol levels.” In Dr. Rarback’s opinion, not only is the information found in the nutrition facts section confusing for the average person, it has people focusing more on numbers and calories than actual nutrition and effect on health.

That is not to say that food labels have not helped us improve our health as a society. The inclusion of trans fat in the nutritional label has encouraged us to change our eating habits and avoid the risk for increased inflammation as well as lower HDL and higher LDL levels. In the United States, most people get more sodium in their diets than they need. Because of food labels, we have been able to monitor our sodium intake, reducing the chance for high blood pressure and other health problems.

However, what if less processed foods were available? Would food labels be as necessary in our daily lives? The healthiest foods, such as our natural fruits and vegetables, do not have any nutrition facts on them. Most health experts and doctors say that as long as half of your plate is covered in vegetables, the rest of your diet will fall into place.

In today’s society, those individuals who check the food labels of their products are considered the most concerned with their nutrition. However, perhaps some reevaluation of the strength of food labels as well the nutritional content of the food that we are consuming is necessary for the health of our nation to move in a positive direction.

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