Food Labels: Do the Math

Tuesday, 14 September 2010 05:28 PM

Most people don’t make a habit of reading food labels. However, checking out the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of a package can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight and avoid many ills, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia.

Food labels as we know them today first appeared in 1994. Since then, it’s been estimated that they have had an important impact on reducing obesity and related costs.

Researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research estimate savings between $63 and $166 billion associated with people using food labels to make healthier choices. The savings come from reduced healthcare costs, fewer missed work days, and higher productivity as a result of less obesity and overweight.

Labels Beat Exercise

A study at Washington State University found that middle-aged label readers are less likely to be overweight than those who ignore labels but exercise three times per week. While this doesn’t make label reading a substitute for physical activity, it does demonstrate the power of nutritional information.

Published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs, the study analyzed government survey data on more than 12,000 adults. It found that more than half the people surveyed were trying to control or lose weight. Among these, nearly half were reading food labels before buying a particular food for the first time.

Compared to men, women between the ages of 37 and 50 are more likely to read food labels and to lose weight. Not surprisingly, people who exercise as well as reading labels are the most successful at shedding excess pounds.

The Biggest Pitfall

Next to ignoring nutritional content, the biggest pitfall is underestimating how many calories a food will add to your diet. The sizes of servings are standardized to make it possible to compare one brand with another, but may not have any bearing on how much you’re likely to eat.

Consider one serving of chips. It doesn’t matter whether they’re potato, corn, or vegetable, ruffled or scoop-shaped, flavored or plain; the calories and other nutritional facts always refer to one ounce. Sometimes the serving size is also noted as a number of chips, which could be anywhere from about 12 to 20.

Unless you routinely count your chips or carefully weigh them before munching, the serving size isn’t tremendously helpful, other than to compare products. Try a more realistic approach:

• Note the number of servings in the whole package.
• Estimate how much of the bag or box you’re likely to eat in one sitting or in a day.
• Multiply the calories per serving by the number of servings.
• Decide whether or not this is a good choice for you.

As an example, if chips contain 150 calories per ounce, a 16-ounce bag contains 2,400 calories. If you eat half of it, that’s 1,200 calories. Depending on your size, that may come close to the total calories (but not nutrients) you need for the day.

Sodium, sugar, and fat, and the actual list of ingredients are also important details to consider. However, a quick calculation of calories per package just might inspire you to head for the produce section.

© HealthDay

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Tuesday, 14 September 2010 05:28 PM
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