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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.