I have a PhD and I still find nutrition labels confusing at times.
In fact, I wanted to dig deeper into this topic, so on my own website I hired someone to do some serious digging.
This article is a condensed version of what we learned in our investigations.
First, a little history lesson.
Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990
The food labels we see today are a product of the Food and Drug Administration’s Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990, which established specific guidelines to regulate what details a consumer could find on their packaged foods in attempt to standardize the landscape of packaged food labels.
The NLEA requires each label to include several things: serving size, the number of servings per container, the nutrient composition of food (more on that in a bit), and the ingredients list. Additionally, the act also established the “circumstances under which nutrition and health claims may and may not be made for foods.” 1
This is important, especially when it comes to the claims made in the health and fitness industry.
According to the NLEA a health claims describe a relationship between a food substance... and reduced risk of a disease or health-related condition.”2 The claims are limited to disease risk reduction, not the “diagnosis, cure, mitigation, or treatment of disease.”3
Related: Build Muscle On A Budget
For example, when you see “a serving of nuts a day reduces your risk of heart disease” on a package of almonds, they are making a very explicit health claim.
Interestingly these health claims can fall into two categories:
- Unqualified & authorized claims, or
- Qualified claims.
To quote Savannah Glasgow,
“Unqualified & authorized claims are supported by the general consensus of the scientific community; ‘the totality of publicly available scientific evidence’3 must substantiate the claims.
As such, there are only 18 nutrient-disease relationships with claims in this category— a dozen of these are unqualified with suggested phrasing provided for the label, and six are authorized with specific phrasing provided.
As long as part of the food product includes ‘sufficient’ amounts of the referenced nutrient, the food manufacturer can include the claim on their packaging at their discretion. Qualified health claims are based on emerging evidence in nutrition research.
Consequently, the label claim must include what the nutrient-disease relationship is currently thought to be and under what specific conditions this relationship is thought to be true.
These claims must be paired with an appropriate qualifying disclaimer ‘to ensure that they are not false or misleading to consumers.’3
In addition to the “OMG this will cure your disease” health claims, there are also the quantifiable claims made on the labels about what they claim is actually in the food. These are nutrient content claims, and as the name implies, these are the labels that describe the content of a nutrient in the packaged food.
Nutritional Content and Rounding
Now onto the numbers game. Let’s talk a little bit about the calories and how the rounding works. The rounding we see on nutrition labels is actually a little non-intuitive and are rounding differently depending on whether is it greater than or less than 50 calories.
If it is 50 calories or less labels round to nearest 5-calorie increment (example: round 47 calories to 45 calories). If it is above 50 calories labels round to nearest 10-calorie increment (example: round 96 calories to “100 calories).
Also, if something is less than 0.5 grams it can legally be labelled as 0 grams. . . this puzzles me. Especially when things like a bag of chips are 7 servings and a normal human being eats the whole bag (I mean seriously, who eats 7.39183 chips, that just stupid), that could add up to almost 3.5 grams in a bag.
Foods labeled as Natural
This brings us to another claim seen on food labels that rustles my Jimmies, the term, “natural”. First, there is the pedantic, but accurate, argument that literally everything in the universe is technically natural. This is the scientist in me; accuracy of language is incredibly important. But I digress; although we will return to this in a moment.
The FDA currently considers “natural” to mean that “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of course) has been included in, or has been added to, a food”6. Put another way, it is currently defined by what it is not, rather than by what it is. Which is a fancy way of saying the label “natural” means absolutely nothing.
According to Savannah Glasgow’s research she did, “the FDA recently called for public opinion and comments on the use of “natural” as a food label in direct response to a growing usage of the term and a greater public awareness of the importance of good nutrition”.
The request for input was made in November 2015, and the commenting period ended in May 2016. In the six-month period, over 7,500 comments were received. You can view the submitted comments by searching “FDA-2014-N-1207” here at the regulations website.
Now, back to my digression and my issue with natural.
Aside from the issue that calling things natural and unnatural is inaccurate and precise, there are two other issues that arise regarding the label natural and the ingredient list in foods. The first is the issue of the naturalistic fallacy and the second is the age old argument of “if you can’t pronounce it you shouldn’t eat it”.
The naturalistic fallacy, introduced by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica, essentially states that because something is natural it is good is fallacious. Easy examples to highlight this fallacy are the bubonic plague, AIDS, and natural toxins.
I think we can say you can’t base any argument about the health properties of a food based on the “naturalness” of it or its label as natural.
The next idea to discuss is the ingredient list. The old adage of, “If you can’t pronounce an ingredient, then you shouldn’t eat it” is used to make food selections in a lot of different diets. Unfortunately, it appears that may not be the best advice nor very accurate.
While the idea is good in theory and well-motivated (anything aimed at making people healthier is well-motivated in my opinion), it paints too simple a picture. Instead, we could benefit more from a better understanding of food chemicals and what they actually mean.
For example, the ingredients list on a bottle of pure honey usually just says honey. That’s great! Right? It’s pure, it’s “natural,” and yours might even be organic or raw… but that “list” of ingredients doesn’t really tell you what’s in the honey. If you want to get specific, the ingredients list should probably look something like this:
Fructose, glucose, water, disaccharides (sucrose, maltose, isomaltose, maltulose, turanose, kojibiose), oligosaccharides (erlose, theanderose, panose), Contains 2% or less of each of the following: enzymes (invertase, amylase, glucose oxidase, catalase, acid phosphorylase), proline and 17 other amino acids, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, ascorbic acid, calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phorphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium, manganese, flavonoids (pinocembrin and others), organic acids (gluconic, acetic, butanoic, formic, citric, succinic, lactic, malic, pyroglutamic), aromatic acids, hydroxymethylfurfural.
Let’s look at this random whey protein powder ingredients list:
Calcium Sodium Caseinate (Milk), Milk Protein Isolate, Non Dairy Creamer (Sunflower Oil, Maltodextrin, Sodium Caseinate (A Milk Derivative), Mono- and Diglycerides, Tocopherols), Maltodextrin, Alkalized Cocoa Powder, Soluble Corn Fiber, Canola Oil, Crystalline Fructose, Medium Chain Triglycerides, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Calcium Phosphate, Less than 1% of: Potassium Chloride, Whey Protein Isolate (Milk), Inulin, Magnesium Oxide, Potassium Bicarbonate, Acesulfame Potassium, DL-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate, Ascorbic Acid, Sucralose, Whey Protein Concentrate (Milk), Whey Protein Hydrolysate (Milk), Soy Lecithin, Ferrous Fumarate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Niacinamide, Zinc Oxide, Copper Gluconate, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Lactoferrin (Milk), Cholecalciferol, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Chromium Chloride, Folic Acid, Biotin, Potassium Iodide, Cyanocobalamin.
This looks like toxic chemical soup to everyone except organic chemist.
When in reality most of these ingredients are simply:
Potassium, milk protein, plant carbohydrate, magnesium, potassium, sweetener, vitamin E, vitamin C, sweetener, milk protein, milk protein, plant fat, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B3, zinc, copper, vitamin B5, milk protein, vitamin D, vitamin B6, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, chromium, vitamin B9, vitamin B7, iodine, vitamin B12.
The Wrap Up
Nutrition labels can be a mine field. Health claims largely don’t have to be justified or based on hard evidence. The rounding is often imprecise and not well communicated. The term natural means almost nothing. The ingredients are sometimes listed by their chemical names, sometimes by their “colloquial” names, and sometimes they aren’t even listed.
If you are spending a lot of time basing your food choices on the nutrition labels it is probably wise to do some serious digging as they are quite imprecise when you get into the weeds of it.