Are Nutrition Labels More or Less Pointless?

Here’s more evidence that you need a Ph.D. in nutrition science to decode them accurately.

Reading Nutrition Labels: Are They More or Less Pointless?

Feels like you need a Ph.D. to read food labels. (Photo: Getty)

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

I’ve admitted here before that until I was in second grade or so, I thought Twinkies and Ding Dongs were breakfast food. Literally, when I saw kids snacking on them after noon, I was like “Wha-huh?” It was like trying to wrap my six-year-old mind around the whole “Jewish friends who don’t have Christmas” thing.

See, I was a notoriously picky eater as a kid, and my poor mother, desperate to get something, anything past my infuriatingly obstinate palate before hauling me off to preschool, finally resorted to Hostess—a capitulation that today may still not exactly lead to formal charges of child endangerment but would undoubtedly have her pilloried on the mommy blogs.

Eventually I discovered breakfast cereal, specifically the kind that came with some sort of toy at the bottom of the box and a cartoon mascot: Cap’n Crunch, Froot Loops, Count Chocula. A couple years ago my mom was (somewhat) vindicated by the Environmental Working Group, which found that a lot of kids’ breakfast cereals actually contained more sugar than store-bought cookies and other sugary snacks. Yes, it turns out a Twinkie wasn’t necessarily a bad breakfast compared to, say, a bowl of Kellogg’s Honey Smacks or Post’s Golden Crisps.  

Oh, but that’s just ridiculous, right? Those cereals still contain vitamins and minerals that a Twinkie doesn’t—it says so on the box. Well, as Jill Richardson recently pointed out on Alternet, relying on the nutrition label to determine the healthy quotient of just about any processed food, from breakfast cereals to granola bars, can quickly send you down a rabbit hole of absurdity.

How absurd? Richardson recounts the experience of a mother and her child arguing over cereal in the grocery aisle. The kid wanted Count Chocula; the mom insisted on Grape Nuts. The mom proceeded to do a side-by-side comparison of the two cereals’ nutrition labels…and ended up with two boxes of Count Chocula in her cart.

WTF!?

“[If] one compares 100-calorie portions of [Grape Nuts and Count Chocula], Count Chocula actually packs more of many vitamins and minerals. (Grape Nuts wins out on a few, like potassium),” Richardson writes. “So does that make it healthy?”

No surprise, the short answer is “no.” But how is your average consumer supposed to determine that without becoming a certified nutritionist?

Richardson does an admirable job trying to decode nutrition labels, and her article is worth reading in full. But like a lot of writers who set out to demystify the eight-point type on the side of your Cheerios, it’s not long before we’re wading into thoroughly confounding territory. (E.g., “Usually when we think of saturated fat, we are talking about long-chain saturated fatty acids with 16 or 18 carbons [palmitic and stearic acid, respectively].”)

Keep that in mind next time you’re weighing which butter substitute to buy.

It’s not Richardson’s fault; it just takes far more to understand the mechanics of human nutritional science than what can fit on the side of a cereal box (or even your average blog post). In the face of a discussion about the most beneficial ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, for example, the whole do-gooder premise of those nutrition labels that we’re all so familiar with does start to seem laughable—if only because we realize that we don’t really know what language those labels are speaking after all.

A few important takeaways from Richardson’s article for those of us who are never going to be able to keep our palmitic and stearic acids straight:

• Not all calories are created equal. Yes, as Richardson points out, you can get 100 calories from, say, a banana or a bunch of potato chips, but that doesn’t mean they’re equally nutritious or equally filling.

• Not all fiber is created equal, either. You want to look for a range of fibers, preferably from whole vegetables and fruits as well as whole grains. Supplementing your fiber intake with things like Fiber One bars is better than getting too little fiber, but it’s still not providing the diversity of fiber that’s best for your body.

• Check to see where those vitamins and minerals are coming from. Food manufacturers will often “fortify” their products with added vitamins and minerals (yes, breakfast cereals are famous for this). You can find out which vitamins and minerals have been added by looking beneath the ingredient list. For example, of the 15 vitamins and minerals listed on the nutrition label of a box of Post Raisin Bran, if you look further down, nine are listed as added. As one nutrition expert tells Richardson: “ ‘One of the rules that I’ve applied to grocery shopping is that if you’re really trying to buy the healthiest processed products out there, do not buy anything that has added vitamins and minerals.’ Why? Because if the vitamins and minerals were in the food in the first place, the manufacturer wouldn’t have to add them.”

I’ve come a long way on the breakfast front. That Raisin Bran I just used as an example above came from my own pantry, and you’ve got to admit that’s probably (maybe…I like to think…) better than, say, Cap’n Crunch.

But the more I think about it, the more I may be gearing up to take it to the next level and leave the breakfast boxes behind. This recipe for homemade cereal actually sounds kinda good…

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