Thumbs Up for Nutrition Labels   

Thumbs Up for Nutrition Labels

Consumers need to be more discerning about what they eat. Nevertheless, he disagrees that all manner of processed food needs to be banished from one’s diet.

It is important to eat a balanced meal. We need our grains, vegetables and meat. Indulging once in a while is not a problem. Having a burger once a month is fine.

How do we know if we’re eating real food or food that’s good for us?

Nutrition labels help consumers make food choices.

Certain countries law makes it compulsory for manufacturers to list the levels of four major nutrients – energy, protein, carbohydrate and fat – on a nutritional information panel (NIP). Information on vitamin and mineral content can be included, but it is not compulsory. Ready-to-drink beverages (soft drinks, fruit juices, flavored milk, etc) must display the total amount of sugar in the product.

Manufacturers are also required to adhere to a standard format: all nutrition information must be listed per 100g (or 100ml for liquids) as well as per serving (one portion).

Nutrition labels help consumers make food choices. You can then compare the nutrients in different brands of a similar product and decide which one is healthier.

We must remind consumers to look at these labels. They have to look at more than just the expiry date. Look at the nutritional value of what you’re eating as well as the list of ingredients. Understand what your food is made of and what you are letting into your stomach.

To make the most of the information on nutrition labels, consumers need to look at the overall nutrition value of a product and not just the value of one or two nutrients.

What to look for

The first thing to look for on the nutrition label is the “serving size”. Unfortunately, serving sizes are not standardized: one brand may stipulate one serving as 35g and another as 50g. What’s important is that consumers note serving size and calculate the nutrients according to the number of servings they consume.

Next, look at calories and the nutritional value of the three nutrients listed – carbohydrates, protein and fat – keeping in mind your daily nutritional and caloric needs. A person’s daily caloric requirements depend on a variety of factors such as age, gender and lifestyle. A person with an active lifestyle needs more calories than one who is sedentary, for example.

Calories are the measurement for the amount of energy we get from food. Sometimes you may see another measurement for energy – kilojoules (one calorie is equivalent to 4.2 kilojoules).

While energy is measured in terms of calories or kilojoules, protein, carbohydrates and fat are measured in grams. One gram of fat equals nine calories; one gram of protein is equivalent to four calories and one gram of carbohydrate is also four calories.

An average woman needs between 1,500 and 2,000 calories per day while a man needs from 2,000 to 2,500 calories. Of this total, no more than 30% (450-600 calories for women; 600-750 for men) should come from fat and no more than 10% (150-200 calories for women; 200-250 for men) from protein.

Let’s take a 125g packet of pretzels as an example. The amount listed per serving is 100g. The NIP shows that (per 100g) the snack has about 516 calories, 6.8g protein, 30.2g fat and 54.3g carbohydrates.

On their own, the levels seem high. When measured against a 1,500 caloric diet, the snack makes up 34% of the day’s caloric quota; 60% of the daily fat quota (of 50g); and 18% of the daily protein requirement (37.5g). And that’s if you have just one serving.

So what do you do – don’t snack?

Nope. If you indulge in a snack that is high in calories, fat and/or sugar, make sure your meals for the rest of the day don’t tip the balance.

It’s not as complicated as it looks.

You don’t need to take a calculator with you when you (go) shopping ... just a rough estimate will do. Avoid eating food that you know is full of empty calories, like soft drinks.

A guide to what and how much we should be eating is the food pyramid.

The bulk of what we eat should be complex carbohydrates – tubers, rice and cereals, preferably whole grains, whole wheat and fiber. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and moderate amounts of meat, fish and dairy.

The food pyramid is a nutrition guideline whereby the bigger base represents the food group that we should consume most (e.g. bread, cereal, rice), while the narrow tip represents food that we should eat sparingly (fats, oils and sweets).

Incidentally, the United States is expected to replace the iconic “food pyramid” (conceived in the 1960s but revised several times since) with a “food plate”.

The food plate will maintain the nutritional recommendations of the pyramid, but make it easier for people to visualize what they should be eating and how much. While no one knows exactly what the food plate will look like, many think it will look like a regular dinner plate with wedges to show one’s recommended daily intake of the various food groups. Vegetables and fruits will likely feature strongly, as will grains and cereals.

Balance is key

The Nutrition Society encourages a balanced diet. There is no need to follow a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet. You need a good balance of nutrients and variety in the food you take. What’s the point of drinking low fat milk, then eating hamburgers?

Many people, for instance, aim for food with “zero fat” content, believing this to be the healthy way to go. But fat is necessary as it is an important source of energy. Fat also provides essential fatty acids like linoleic, said to be essential for growth, healthy skin and metabolism. Fat also helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).

Too much fat is bad but we do need some fat, especially children. It isn’t advisable to give young children skimmed or low-fat milk.

Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Malaysian Health Ministry recommend that fat accounts for no more than 30% of our daily calorie intake (450-600 calories for women; 600 to 750 for men), no more than 10% of which should be saturated fats.

Fighting fat

As much as we need fat, it is important to note that not all fats are made equal. Research on the possible harmful effects and/or benefits of fat as well as its role in heart disease, obesity and even cancer is constantly evolving.

But most research concurs that consumers should aim for healthy fat (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat) and shy away from unhealthy saturated and trans fats.

Saturated fats are derived from animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs. They are also found in some plant-based sources such as coconut, palm and palm kernel oils. One way to identify saturated fats, which directly raise total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, is that they are solid at room temperature.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are two types of unsaturated fatty acids that are derived from vegetables and plants.

Studies show that monounsaturated fats can lower LDL and maintain HDL (good) cholesterol. These fats are liquid at room temperature but begin to solidify at cold temperatures. They can be found in olives, olive oil, nuts, peanut oil, canola oil and avocados.

Polyunsaturated fats, also liquid at room temperature, can be found in safflower, sesame, corn, cottonseed and soybean oils and are also said to reduce one’s LDL.

And then there are trans fats, a non-essential fatty acid that health authorities around the world have cautioned against. Trans fats are actually unsaturated fats that have gone through hydrogenation, a chemical process that changes liquid oils into solid fats and helps extend the shelf life of processed foods.

Trans fats are also said to raise LDL cholesterol levels while lowering HDL cholesterol levels. Other terms for trans fats are “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil”.

We need both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils in our diet. But avoid trans fats altogether.

We can have some level of saturated fats but we need to be careful of the source. Saturated fats are most suitable for deep frying, which is something we should avoid as much as possible anyway.

Although all nutritional labels list the levels of fat in a product, not all specify where the individual fats are derived from. If you see animal fat or lard listed among the ingredients, you know it is saturated fat. And if you see the term “hydrogenated” anywhere near an oil, look away.

The ingredients

The last thing is to note what goes into a product. If the NIP tells you how nutritious it is, the ingredient listing will show you what exactly you are eating.

The main ingredients appear higher up in the list. It is particularly important to examine the list if you have food allergies/intolerances or health conditions, or wish to abstain from certain foods.

But knowing the ingredients of a food product is beneficial to everyone because knowing what you’re eating may change the way you choose your foods.

Take a packet of dry mushroom soup mix, for example. You may be surprised to learn that mushrooms are not the main ingredient. Topping the list are potato starch, vegetable fat, dried glucose syrup, salt, whey powder, modified corn starch, maltodextrin and only then, champignon extract and dehydrated mushrooms.

Sometimes, the ingredients look like they are written in a foreign language as the food terms dominate. There are some things to take note of, though. Sugar may not be on the list of ingredients but if you see sucrose, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, and/or high fructose corn syrup, think again. The product is not sugar-free as these are all different types of sugars.

Ingredient lists are also where you can find out the type of fats in your food.

Is all this too much to digest?

Pollan makes it simple: Look to the ingredient list. The shorter the better.

If you don’t know what something is on that list, put it back. Better yet, buy things without labels, such as produce, fish and meat.


Happy reading,

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