Just the Facts! Deciphering Nutrition Labels, Watch the Video, too!

How much is that in HFCS?

With all the confusing terms, claims and information to be found on food or beverage packaging, the most challenging can be those that are supposed to make everything perfectly clear – the “facts” found on the nutrition facts label, or NFL.

The Food and Drug Administration has been trying to explain how to read this required label addition for around 20 years. And despite the various tweaks to make it more user friendly over the decades, the NFL remains an interesting enigma.

The Mayo Clinic has a web page to help you “decode” it, while Web MD calls it a “label reading adventure.” And though referring to it to it as an “easy tool,” the FDA provides a microsite complete with “programs and materials” to help you understand what it all means. These comprehension aids include video productions, one complete with singing and dancing shoppers vocalizing “read the label” to the tune of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Now, don’t get me wrong – the NFL isn’t totally useless. In fact, it contains a key piece of information that’s worth checking out. Right on the top, under the big “Nutrition Facts” name, you’ll find the “serving size” – or what the manufacturer has envisioned as a “serving.” That in turn will let you know how the calories per serving number is relevant to what you’re consuming.

But even for that to be of use, you have to check each and every item, as the “serving size” appears to vary from product to product. The 20-ounce Coke used in the accompanying video, for example, claims to be one serving, while the same size Mountain Dew says it contains two-and-a-half servings.

And while the terms “total fat” and “trans fat” can be totally misleading, there’s one part of the NFL that could use its own microsite to explain – and that’s the “sugars” listing.

What’s the difference: ‘sugar’ or ‘sugars?’

Sugar, according to the FDA definition, is the natural sweet substance that comes from “sugar cane or sugar beets.” “Sugars,” however, is a far more complicated and confusing term.

The terms “sugar” and “sugars” have entirely different meanings, and even the simple word “sugar” can have a different meaning depending on the place that it appears on a food or beverage label.

Last May I wrote the FDA about Capri Sun Mountain Cooler drink, which has a front-of-package statement in big letters claiming to have “25% less sugar.” Since the ingredients are actually nothing more than water, high fructose corn syrup and a little apple juice, what I wanted to know is where’s the sugar it claims to have less of?

The agency responded in an email that while the word “sugar” has a very specific meaning in the ingredient label (the part of a package you should be reading) which is natural cane or beet sugar, “…how it may be used depends on the context in which it is used.” In other words, “sugar” can become a “nutrient” claim when not being used in the ingredient list as a “statement of identity.”

But the word “sugars” is actually the most confusing aspect of the NFL, which gives no hint as to whether such “sugars” are naturally occurring or added, nor what the source may be.

“Sugars”ending in ‘s’ is defined by the FDA as “the sum of all free mono- and disaccharides (such as glucose, fructose, lactose and sucrose).” In other words “sugars” can include lactose (from milk), added honey, real sugar (sucrose), fructose and high fructose corn syrup. The NFL will also give you no information as to the fructose amount in a product, especially useful information when it comes to HFCS.

For reference, the “sugars” in a one-cup serving of plain milk is 12 grams from the lactose, while the same amount of apple cider with no added sweetener is 30 grams from the fructose in the apples. The Sunkist Orange Soda in the video contains 43 grams of “sugars” per serving, all from HFCS. (For more details on the NFL, read my blog from last year, Five big things that are wrong with the nutrition facts label).

So before you spend valuable ‘store’ time trying to analyze the nutrition facts label, why not go right to the source — the ingredients label? This handy tool can tell you the most important things you need to know before considering a food or drink for consumption. And if you find all the additives and ingredients to be unfamiliar or indecipherable, that shouldn’t be a problem. It means the product in question is best left right on the shelf.

Photo: Shutterstock/Brian A. Johnson

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