What’s in a food label?

I am always staring intently at the backs of food containers.

The truth is, I am not satisfied with what I see on it. It is oversimplified and does not convey an accurate representation of what a food is. However it will be impossible to put what i want to know simply because of space restrictions.

No choice; I will just have to make do with what it tells us.


Calories: Probably the most meaningless entry on the label. We still measure this value the same way as we did a hundred years ago (Atwater System). If our digestion turns food to ash, then it might have been easier to figure out but that is not the case. In reality, we only get a fraction of it. This fraction can vary by your race, your intestinal microbial makeup, how the food is cooked, or the nature of the food itself.(See this Sci. Am. article for an idea of how messy it is)

I dare anyone to eat caloric dense nuts to obesity. It will be quite a challenge.

Fats: Keep a lookout for trans fats but the other numbers don’t matter much. Now the deal is however is that if the food contains <0.5g/serving, it does not need to be reported. (See this CBS article). For someone who buys a lot of prepackaged items, this can add up real quick.

Sugars: Depends on what you are buying. Why there is no recommended intake appears to be due to the messed up lobbying by the food industry in the US. In general, keep the percentage by weight to a minimum.

Ingredients: To me, this is the most valuable listing on a label. Knowing what is in a food will probably make you quit most processed foods on sale. Seriously, what is this stuff being fed to us? This age old Animaniacs song probably sums it all up. It does really make our insides. My maxim now? The fewer ingredients the better and that I will skip over things I don’t recognize.

I am nonetheless skeptical on the accuracy of the ingredients list. We are really at the mercy of the manufacturers.


Now what doesn’t it tell us? A lot…really.

There is no detailed breakdown of carbohydrate types, protein types or even types of fats.

Take cooking oils for example. We have poly and mono unsaturated fats and saturated fats. 3 entries, which can represent anywhere from 3 to a dozen or more different types of fats. A casual look at Wiki for a listing of fats gives this and this. Does it matter? Sure it does. Each dietary fatty acid has its agenda. Just trying to know what they do is worthy of a P.H.D. or a bunch of them.

How about sugars? There are sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose and what not. And I assure you that the effects of drinking glucose is way different from drinking fructose.

There is also the matter that different nutrients interact with each other. They can boost or interfere with each other. A few off the top of my head are that dietary fibers can slow down sugar absorption and may affect iron as well, vitamin D boosts calcium absorption…Hundreds and thousands of relationships, both discovered and remaining to be discovered, none of which appears on labels.

There is so much to know and so much we don’t know. Food labels simply do not do enough justice in this department, nor will it ever be able to due to space limitations.

♦ Perhaps there will be a mobile or A.R. app that will fill in this gap in the future.

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