Reading Labels Can Open Your Eyes, Shut Your Mouth

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Consumers will benefit in the long run from food manufacturers’ efforts to make and promote healthier processed food, says Molly Gee, chief dietitian at Houston’s Institute for Preventive Medicine at the Methodist Hospital. Still, she advises consumers to look beyond the promotions and read labels carefully.

Gee, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn., and other health experts also caution consumers to view food ingredients in the context of their total dietary goals and in the context of their life style. A person who eats mostly home-cooked, balanced meals made from unprocessed foods, Gee says, probably shouldn’t be too concerned about a little tropical oil in an occasional snack.

The Food and Drug Administration requires food processors to list ingredients and the amount of sodium on the label, but they do not have to list nutritional information unless they have added a nutrient to the food or are making a nutritional claim about the product. For example, milk cartons carry a complete label because Vitamins A & D are added nutrients.

In practice, many processors voluntarily provide complete nutritional information, resulting in about 55% of packaged foods with comprehensive labels, according to FDA surveys. Manufacturers may provide general descriptions of colorings and flavorings, but yellow dye No. 5 must be listed specifically to warn people with allergic reactions.


The comprehensive label consists of three basic parts:

- The amount of calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates and sodium per serving.

- The percentage of the recommended daily allowance of certain nutrients.

- The ingredients.

The ingredient that represents the most weight in the package would must be listed first, with other ingredients following in descending order. For example, if there are 8 ounces of beans in a 12-ounce can, beans would be listed first.

Keep Guidelines in Mind

The FDA is considering regulations that would more specifically define what manufacturers can say about cholesterol on the label. If approved, food processors would be able to say a product is cholesterol-free if there is less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol in each serving, or describe the product as low cholesterol if each serving has less than 20 milligrams of cholesterol.

A reduced cholesterol statement would mean that the cholesterol normally in such a product has been reduced by at least 75%, according to the FDA proposal. Manufacturers who make statements about cholesterol on the label would also be required to list whether the fat is polyunsaturated or saturated.

Gee says that in looking at labels, consumers should keep in mind dietary guidelines, such as the American Heart Assn. recommendations on sodium, cholesterol and fat. Cholesterol consumption should be limited to less than 300 milligrams a day, and daily fat intake should be less than 30% of total calories, according to those guidelines.

The guidelines allow for a broader range of sodium--2,000 to 5,000 milligrams per day--with people with hypertension or other health problems advised to stick closer to the lower end of the range. (The average American intake is about 7,000 milligrams.)

It is important to consider not only total calories, but the distribution of total calories in the food, Gee says, because the healthiest diet has a calorie distribution that is predominantly protein and complex carbohydrates.

Also, nutritionists say it is harder to lose weight if too many of the calories are from fat. Each gram of fat equals 9 calories and each gram of carbohydrates and protein equals 4 calories, Gee says. To determine the percentage of total calories that is fat, multiply the number of grams by 9 and divide the result by the total number of calories in the dish.

Many of the popular low-calorie prepared meals vary widely in how the calories are distributed among protein, carbohydrates and fat. For example, Weight Watchers’ 370-calorie Cheese Enchiladas Ranchero dinner has 22 grams of fat. Thus, 53% of the calories come from fat, 18% from protein and 28% from carbohydrates. The fat content is far above the recommended guideline for one meal, Gee says.

The 220 calories in the Le Menu Light Style Herb Roasted Chicken dinner is made up of 24% fat (6 grams), and 38% each (21 grams) protein and carbohydrates. A way to visualize how much fat is consumed, Gee said, is to convert grams to teaspoons.

Five grams of fat is equal to a teaspoon of oil, she says. Thus the fat in that particular Weight Watchers dinner is like downing nearly 4 1/2 teaspoons of oil.