Monday, January 3, 2011

Cooking Light: Deciphering Food Labels

"The Fuzzy Math of Food Labels" - Jan/Feb 2011

One little quiz cleared up many things for me, or at least brought them to my attention.

1. When you read food labels, pay close attention to the serving size.
I usually take note of that, but I don't always follow it. The main time I notice it is when a small portion has a lot of calories. Then I tend to avoid it.

2. Manufacturers determine snack portions.
According to an article in the NY Times last year, "Standard serving sizes were created by the F.D.A. in the early 1990s, partly to make it easier to compare the nutritional values of different products. Congress required that the serving sizes match what people actually ate. To determine that, the F.D.A. evaluated data from surveys of Americans’ eating habits taken in the 1970s and 1980s."

But many manufacturers package their products in larger than one-serving sizes. For example, one Otis Spunkmeyer Cheese Strudel muffin is two servings. The nutritional information specifies that, but most people are going to see one muffin, think one serving, and eat the whole thing, thinking they're getting 220 calories instead of 440.

And take Lay's Classic Potato Chips - you know, you can't eat just one. But can you stop at just 15? That's one serving (150 calories) in a multi-serving bag.

3. Ingredient lists go by weight, not volume.
This was a surprise to me! I always thought ingredients were listed according to amount. If sugar or corn syrup was listed first, I thought it was the main ingredient. Instead, it's listed first because it weighs more than the other ingredients. I threw out a box of mediocre-tasting dark chocolate cherry granola bars because I checked the ingredient list (after I bought it) and saw that high fructose corn syrup was listed first. Compare that to the oats, which is probably the main ingredient but weighs considerably less. Less even than the chocolate chunks.

So now as I shop for groceries and read labels, there are all these new things to keep in mind. It can be mind-boggling! And while I still want to avoid high fructose corn syrup (as well as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated goop), I don't have to fret so much if it's listed later in the ingredient list.

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