Whether you are a health conscious person, trying to lose weight, or both, I’m sure you find this topic of interest. Although there is a Nutrition Label on every product we buy, many of us are confused as to how the figures are derived, what they mean, or whether they are of any use at all!

However, nutrition labels are there for a purpose, and should be ‘consulted’ whenever you purchase a food item at the grocery store, or online.

Perhaps you find the numbers confusing as you’re not quite a ‘math’ person. Once you read this section you will learn that you don’t need to feel bad about this, as the numbers are not always what they seem. Bear with me as we walk through this label for Oreo Cookies.

Serving Size

This shows what all other calculations are based on. Here the serving size is stated as 34g, but we don’t know whether this a single Oreo cookie or a packet containing 2 or more.

Food companies, and especially their marketing departments, are very cunning. The serving size is purposely made small so that the figures are made to look good – like calories and fat content, in which case companies want them to appear ‘small’.

Lesson: Always establish what in reality you might consume as your ‘normal’ serving. For the purpose of this review, let’s assume 34g equates to a single cookie.

 

Servings Per Container

There are 15 servings in the packet of Oreos, therefore a single serving of 34g equates to 1/15 of the entire packet. Useful to know when you open unwrapped portions, like a bag of crisps; the stated serving size might be 30g, with 9 total servings in the bag. Therefore, nutrition details are based on 1/9 of the bag of crisps, not half the bag as you might easily assume, as this is what you may perceive to be your normal portion size.

 

Calories

This is the calorific value for a serving, which we’re assuming there is a single cookie.

Based on 15 servings, there’s a total of 2,400 calories in the entire packet, which equates to the total daily recommended calories for an adult male.

Hence the reason we don’t count calories! How can these calories be compared to an equivalent amount of a day’s worth of wholesome, nutrient-dense foods – from our complex carbs, healthy fats, and quality protein?

 

How is this figure derived?

Macronutrients provide us with energy, and you may or not know that:

1g carbohydrate = 4 calories
1g fat = 9 calories
1g protein = 4 calories

 

The Oreo Cookie label shows us the weight of each macronutrient in a serving. So to get the calories per serving:

25g carbohydrate  x 4 =100
7g fat x 9 =63
1g protein x 4 = 4

Total calories 167 (the difference from 160 is due to rounding)

 

Calories from Fat

This is listed for those who need to watch their fat intake. There are 60 ‘fat’ calories in a single serving of Oreos (again, the difference from our calculation of 63 is due to rounding)

 

Total Fat

This is the total fat in grams per serving size.

The daily valueDV, shows the percentage of fat a serving size provides, based on the government recommendation of 65g of fat a day, assuming a 2,000 calorie a day intake. So, if you consume 2000 calories per day, one serving of cookies provides 11% of the total recommended fat.

 

Saturated Fat

The theory is that people need to watch their saturated fat intake. However, saturated fats come from:

  1. natural sources (meats, dairy, coconut, nuts, seeds)
  2. hydrogenated fats, which we want to avoid (refined oils and fats)

Looking at the numbers, we don’t know whether the saturated fat is from a healthy source, or from chemically made hydrogenated oils. I’m sure you’re beginning to see why these figures are not so useful – not all ‘saturated’ fats are equal.

The government recommends that saturated fat intake is limited to 20g on a diet of 2,000 calories per day. Therefore this product, with 2g of saturated fat, satisfies 10% of a day’s recommended fat intake.

By default, the remaining 7g of fat in this produce would be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat.

 

Trans fat

Due to their negative impact on our health, trans fats must be listed on all nutrition labels. However, trans fats can be derived from dairy products (it’s a bit of a story – about ruminant animals!) – these are not the same as trans fats created in a lab from partially hydrogenated fats and oils. So again, the figure does not tell the true picture.

 

Cholesterol

This shows dietary cholesterol (which comes only from animal fat, called sterol), which in the past we were advised to avoid if we needed to watch our serum/blood cholesterol. We now know this was inaccurate advice. Unfortunately, it takes decades for governments to make changes based on the latest medical and scientific evidence, therefore you will continue to see this on labels, and continue to read this advice, for some time.

 

Sodium

This is noted for those watching their salt intake, due to high blood pressure.

 

Carbohydrate

Indicates total calories from starches, sugars, and dietary fiber. Again, based on the numbers alone, we don’t know the source – good or bad carbs? However, for diabetes and those watching their sugar levels, it can be a useful indicator.

 

Dietary Fiber

Fibre supports good digestion and colon health, so we are interested to know how much is in our food. However, this figure includes fibre added back into the product as an additive; not really the healthy type we are after.

 

Sugars

This figure shows the total grams of sugar in the product. Based on 4g = 1 teaspoon, there are 3.5 teaspoons of sugar in a serving of Oreo cookies.  However, this may come from natural sources (fruits, honey) or from added/refined sugars. Granted, we know in this case it will be from cheap refined sugars.

 

Protein

This figure shows the grams of protein per serving from animal or plant sources. All whole food products naturally contain some protein, so given that the proportion here is so low, it should send the signal that there’s not much natural food in here!

 

Country-specific

Labels will differ slightly depending on the origin of the food, as different governments have their own guidelines. Generally, however, the above are listed on all nutrition labels.

In the US, vitamins A, C, calcium and iron must be specified as they are deemed the most important. Again, these can come from natural food, or from added (fortified) ingredients.

In some countries (Australia, UK) figures are shown based on a 100g serving – this is useful for comparison purposes across similar products.

The UK uses a ‘traffic light’ system to highlight favourable and unfavourable listings – e.g. green for low calorie, red for high sodium. However, in the ‘low calorie’ serving there may be a lot of artificial sugars and additives – so you and I might deem a red signal healthier than a green!

 

Recommendation

After all that, I’m going to suggest that you look beyond the numbers, apart from ones you might wish to quickly refer to for medical reasons – e.g. a number of carbs if diabetic, or grams of sodium if watching blood pressure.

In general, the numbers tell us very little, as we want to get our energy and nutrients from real, wholesome food. By looking at the numbers alone, we’re not told anything about the source behind them. If anything, these label numbers can ‘lure’ us into purchasing cheap, processed, unhealthy products as the figures are made to look attractive, based on a limited understanding of what they mean.

If in the past you have used these numbers as a guideline to make a healthier choice, you might feel slightly cheated. The truth is, and I don’t like to say this, is that we are often, and usually knowingly, being deceived by those we should be able to trust; especially the food giants and big pharmaceutical companies.

So from here in, take control of your health by truly understanding what you are putting into your body. Take time to review nutrition labels, and be satisfied that what you read is good enough for you and your family.

 

So what you real foodies do? Share your answer (or guess) below.

 

To our health!

Liza Rowan

Holistic Nutritionist

When not not busy in my favourite role as mother to my two boys,  I dedicate my time to educate, motivate and inspire us all to lead healthier, happier lives. This involves hosting Nutrition courses (in-class and online), corporate wellness talks, workshops and when I have time, private consultations.

 You can follow me on one or more of the following channels:

 

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