Promise, which claims to have less saturated fat than margarine because “it’s made from sunflower oil,” has the same amount as every leading brand of margarine. Go figure. With our increasingly processed diet, the need has never been greater for food labels that spell out fat, sugar, sodium, cholesterol and fiber content in a simple way. Instead we’re given too much information we don’t need and not enough of the information we do need.
Most product labels make only token efforts, if any, to address the needs of consumers trying to make healthy food choices. Many products aren’t required to give any information beyond an ingredient list, and even that can be misleading. Ingredients are listed in order by weight, with the most abundant ingredient first, which moves salt, fat and sugar down the list behind heavier ingredients containing water.
You can’t judge a food by how it looks, either. You’d expect “Ramen” noodles to be pure starch, but you can practically lube your car with them. Who would ever guess that they contain 15 grams of fat? You won’t find this information on the label, even if you can pull the ingredient list away from the folded seam and read it.
Even when manufacturers do make health recommendations, you often can’t trust them. Carnation recommends that you pour their Coffee-Mate, a non-dairy creamer, over your cereal, ostensibly to avoid cholesterol and saturated fat. However, they fail to mention that a half-cup of the creamer would provide you with 8 grams of total fat, compared to just 2.5 grams of fat and only 9 milligrams of cholesterol in a half-cup of low-fat milk.
WHAT M WATCH OUT FOR
Sodium. Our bodies require a minimum of 400 milligrams of sodium, and a maximum of 2000 milligrams, per day to function normally. Other sources of sodium besides salt to watch out for on labels include MSG, baking powder, baking soda, brine, sodium phosphate, sodium alginate and sodium nitrate.
Cholesterol. The recommended maximum daily intake is 250 to 300 milligrams, the amount found in one egg yolk. Most products that contain cholesterol don’t list the cholesterol content, but if the product has an ingredient derived from animals, it contains cholesterol. More importantly, it contains saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol. When you see “no cholesterol’ claims on products like cooking oil, peanut butter and potato chips, it’s true-products not derived from animals don’t contain cholesterol, and never will. However, they can be very high in saturated fat.
Sugar. There are no official guidelines for sugar intake, but it’s good idea to avoid products that list sugar as the first or second ingredient on the product label. A note of caution, however: Sugar by other names is sucrose, glucose, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup, corn sweetener, sorbitol and honey. Even if the word “sugar” doesn’t appear among the top ingredients, if you add up all the forms of sugar, it may well be one of the principal ingredients.
Fat. The maximum daily fat allowance is 30 percent of calories to maintain an ideal weight. If a 1600 calories per day maintains your ideal weight, then your daily fat allowance is 480 calories from fat (1600 x 0.3). Since there are nine calories per gram of fat, this is 53 grams of fat (480/9 cals per g). If product contains 10 grams of fat, that would account for nearly one-fifth of your daily fat allowance.
Using this method there are no “forbidden” foods, unless you’ve exceeded the daily fat allowance. it does require some initial arithmetic and then some mental “figuring” throughout the day. If this doesn’t appeal to you, you might try restricting to an “occasional basis” any food that contains more than 30 percent of calories as fat.
Clearly, there is a need to reform food labels, and the FDA is finally stepping in. They recently announced a program that would go into effect late next year, requiring labels to provide information on saturated fat, calories from fat, cholesterol and fiber. They are also working on stricter definitions of terms like low fat and high fiber.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (1501 16th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-1499) would like to see even greater reforms, and is spearheading a national consumer campaign. Among the many good ideas they propose are simple visual cues rating calories, fat, sodium and fiber (“stoplights” printed on the front of the product) and a pie chart, where at a glance you can see how much fat the product contains compared to protein and carbohydrate.
You can voice your opinion to your congressional representatives, or make it clear you don’t support products that don’t give you the information you need by using your ultimate weapon-the dollar.