Saturday, April 02, 2005

Label, Labels, Labels!

This past week a new rule went into effect from the USDA. You will notice it at your grocery store, at your favorite restaurant and on fresh products sold. It is the rule that states that all fish sold in the US will now have to have a product origin listing. The FDA wants us to know where the fish we're consuming is raised. Whether it is fished from streams, lakes, or oceans, or if it is farmed. I was at a restaurant last Thursday and I did notice the menu read a bit different - farm raised British Poached Salmon, farm raised Mexican Talapia, among others. Hmm... New regulations already being followed prior to the rule being in effect!

Edit: A commentor has correctly pointed out that I refer to the FDA with regard to the country of origin labeling (COOL) rule. It is actually the USDA in charge of this program. It has gone into effect today April 4, 2005. It currently only requires COOL labeling on fish and shellfish sold through retail outlets.

So how did all this labeling stuff get started? The FDA has been monitoring food labels for over 70 years. Until 1974 the only thing that had to appear on a label was an ingredient panel. In 1974 the FDA began a program requiring a nutrition label to also appear. The nutrition label must appear on all packaged food, except - if the package is too small to carry the nutri info, then the packer is required to include a phone number for requests for information. Another reason a packaged food may not have a nutri label is volume: Small food companies are also exempt. By small the FDA means a company with less than 500 employees, and has sales of $500,000 or less a year. There is also no requirement for fresh foods and foods sold in bulk to entities labeled - not for resale.

So now we have a good idea of who has to have a nutri label. Let's see what needs to be on it.

Ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order of weight: heaviest to lightest. This helps you determine just how much of the actual food or juice is in the container. It is like that you will be surprised by how much water there is in most products. Spices are not usually required to be listed separately, they usually are listed as spices - natural or artificial. Flavorings must be listed as natural or artificial, as are color additives.

Nutrition facts. There is an amazing amount of information required on the nutri panel of a label. Let's start at the top:
Serving Size: This is the actual FDA recommended serving size. It will stun you when you find out the serving size of most foods.
Servings per container: This is what you can expect to find inside the package - how many servings should be contained inside.

These two are the easiest to determine, however, the most shocking to most consumers. Did you know that a serving size of a Vlasic pickle spear is 3/4 of a spear? Yes, I only eat the 3/4 and put the rest back for another meal.

The next section of the label is where you find the meat of the important information.

Calorie content of serving size. Most people think this refers to the whole package. No, it's just per serving, just like the rest of the information. This section also gives you the calories from fat. Hopefully it is significantly less than the calorie total!

Total Fat. This tells you what amount of fat is contained in the product. It also currently tells you the percentage of saturated fats in the fat total. So if the fat total is 3%, the manufacturer is required to tell you what percentage of that 3% is saturated. Next year food manufacturers will have to tell you what percentage is trans-fats also. You remember the guy who was going to sue Nabisco for Oreos? He's a key person in getting transfats listed on labels.

Cholesterol. This is the percentage of the serving (in miligrams) of cholesterol. If you're taking cholesterol reduction drugs, it would be a good idea if this figure is a zero.

Sodium. Sodium is in everything! It occurs naturally and also gets added at the time of manufacturing. If you're watching your sodium intake this info is very helpful.

Carbohydrates. This number is more important than people think. Especially if you have been diagnosed with Type I or II diabetes. Why? Because carbohydrates are sugars. This is how your body treats them. So you need to consider your intake of carbs all the time. If you're carbing up for a race or other heavy exercise or work it's also a good thing to know. Check with your favorite dietician for more info on managing carbs. Included in this percentage is also the sugars in this product.

Remember: When you're eating something that is natural - no sugar added - it can still have sugar in it. Sugars are naturally occurring in certain organic foods.

Pretty self explanatory. Like carbs and sugars, this number give you the amount of protein in a serving.

We now move to the "Vitamin" section of the label. This can be as little or as much as the manufacturer wants to use. However, the amounts of vitamins A, C, Calcium and Iron must be listed. Most of the time if a food manufacturer is trying to convince you of a food "healthful" benefits, this list may include other vitamins and be quite long. There is also the RDA statement telling you what level of calorie intake this information is based upon, such as, 2000 calories as day.

Reviewing the information on a food label can be very enlightening. You may find you are ingesting some pretty strange things. Snack foods are notorius for having lots of wierd little additives, most people don't even recognize most of the items listed. However, a careful review of the ingredient panel will give you information you need to make correct food choices for you and your families.

That's more than enough info for now. I'll talk about the other side of the labels another time - you know the other side - those wonderful claims they make!