Food labels have been regulated since Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in 1990, but they are constantly updated to be more “user friendly”. Despite these efforts and the numerous articles written on how to read a food label, consumers still report being misled and confused. With all the fervor over putting “natural” on a label (or more and more frequently “artificial – free”), it’s a good idea to take a look at what is NOT reported on the food label.
13 Things You Won’t Find on a Food Label
1. The vitamin content on the label is not accurate once you’ve cooked the food. Steamed vegetables retain more of their vitamins than boiled vegetables.[i]
2. With temperature abuse, a safe product may become unsafe before it hits your grocer’s shelves. When a food is overexposed to warm temperatures, bacteria multiply and produce gas; this is why lunch meat packages and juice containers become puffy when left out too long.[ii]
3. There is such a thing as too much protein, so don’t overdo that protein shake. The FAO/WHO recommends no more than 1.4 grams protein per kilogram of body-weight for the most rigorous athlete. For everyone else it’s 0.83 grams protein per kilogram body weight.[iii]
4. Not all fiber is created equal. The added fiber in Pop-tarts and breakfast pastries is not as beneficial to the digestive system as the fiber in celery and other vegetables. Some fiber, like inulin, actually creates gastrointestinal distress in some people. Glucomannan or konjac gum has to be used carefully because it absorbs so much water it can become a choking hazard.
5. Some beverages should not be consumed in less than 20 minutes. Energy drinks and other caffeine-beverages should be consumed slowly over 20 minutes because that’s the minimum time for caffeine to be absorbed and go into effect. Meal-replacement shakes can take up to 30 minutes to trigger satiety signals, so sip slowly for the most benefit.
6. Some protein bars look like cake, but can be tough as leather to chew. Before buying any protein bar, try pinching it in the package to gauge hardness.
7. Calorie content is not included on fresh produce or on alcoholic beverages, but alcohol has 7 calories per gram, almost as much as fat, which has 9 calories per gram. (NOTE – SOME ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES ARE NOW INCLUDING NUTRITION FACTS PANELS WITH CALORIE COUNTS)
8. Most products have an expiration date, but that date may change once the product is opened. Some “raw” juices will turn rancid, moldy or spoiled within 48 hours because the bacteria normally killed by pasteurization can overpopulate the product once it’s opened.
9. Most food labels have Total, Saturated, and Trans Fats, but don’t always indicate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are found naturally in salmon, but they’re also sometimes fortified into other products like bread or egg-whites. Foods with a good source of omega-3s usually advertise it somewhere on the package, but this is not required.
10. Most food labels are required to have the address where the food was manufactured, but this does not indicate where the manufacturer got the ingredients from. When it comes to food-borne outbreaks and contamination scares, it is up to the manufacture to back-track or “trace” the finished product back to the source.
11. The label may give directions for how to prepare the food, but no indication how long it took to manufacture the food. For example, a jelly bean takes 7 days to make.
12. Serving size is no indication of how much you should eat in one sitting. Several studies have shown people eat more food when it comes from a bigger container, but overeating past the point of satiety leads to significant weight gain over the years. Save calories and money by paying more attention to satiety cues than to whether the package is empty yet.
13. Working conditions where the food was made affect the quality and safety of the food. If your basket of fresh berries was picked by someone who had to meet a quota and wasn’t allowed a bathroom break, there could be some contamination on the berries. NOTE – this is a hypothetical based on an urban legend, and NOT INDICATIVE OF LABOR CONDITIONS OF ALL BERRY FARMS
Yes, it’s important to be an educated food-label-reader, and there are plenty of great resources on how to master this skill (like this book, from Bonnie Taub-Dix), but in my opinion it’s just as important to think about the information that is NOT on the label.
[i] Effect of Different Cooking Methods on Color, Phytochemical Concentration, and Antioxidant Capacity of Raw and Frozen Brassica Vegetables. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2010, 58 (7), pp 4310–4321. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf904306r
[ii] FOOD AND INDUSTRIAL MICROBIOLOGY: Food spoilage, food infections and intoxications caused by microorganisms and methods for their detection http://www.scribd.com/doc/60035022/6/Spoilage-of-fresh-and-ready-to-eat-meat-products
[iii] Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition – Report of a Joint WHO/FAO/UNU Expert Consultation. http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/nutrientrequirements/WHO_TRS_935/en/index.html