The Diet Detective: Understand Your Food Labels

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) ­ "an independent, nonprofit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public" ­ recently came out with a report regarding the food label. Since it could be a long time before the labels are actually changed, I thought a little primer on "what it all means" ­ a cheat sheet, if you will ­ could help.
 

Serving Size

 
What it Means:
The problem is that these amounts are based on data from national food-consumption surveys performed by asking people how much of a particular food they normally consume ­ this is called Reference Amount Customarily Consumed or RACC.

Why it Matters: Problem is that most people underestimate the amount of foods they eat, so serving sizes based on what people report are not very realistic. You might, for example, see a serving size for ice cream listed as ? cup, but most people eat a lot more than that. What happens is that we generally look at the serving size (if we look at the calories at all) and tend to believe that is all we're eating, while the reality is that we're eating a lot more. The rest of the food package information is based on this "serving size" (e.g., daily values, protein, carbohydrates, etc.) ­ so its accuracy is very important.
 

Definitions of Nutrient Content Claims

Keep in mind that these are all "per serving," so a food may be "low fat" and still be high in calories, depending on the amount you choose to eat.  

Calorie Claims
 
What it Means:
Calorie Free: Less than five calories per RACC or per serving if the serving size is larger..
 
Low Calorie: 40 calories or less per RACC (and per 50 grams if RACC is small).
 
Reduced/Less Calories: At least 25 percent fewer calories per RACC than a comparable food without reduced calories. Or, for meals and main dishes, 120 calories or less per 100 grams.
 
Why it Matters
: Clearly, calories matter; you ought to know how many you should be consuming each day. (You can determine your calorie needs here: www.bcm.edu/cnrc/caloriesneed.htm.) The calories listed on the label are based on serving size. When looking at the label, check the serving size and ask yourself, "Is that the amount I'm really going to eat?" But just because a food is low in calories doesn't mean it's necessarily healthy. Even a food that is labeled "calorie free" could be a potential problem, because oftentimes if it has no calories it probably contains artificial chemicals. The reality is that, when it comes to healthy eating, you can't simply rely on one specific claim or bit of information. You need to be aware of the entire picture.

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