Nutrition Facts Labels: Nutrition Data Consistency

Nutrition Data Consistency

How can we figure out whether labels are accurate?

Read your labels carefully. Check out the math. Learn as much as possible about the ingredients in your food. Don’t buy products with inaccurate labels. Let their manufacturers know that they’ve lost sales.

What do you mean by “read your labels carefully”?

If a company has made an amazing technical breakthrough and found a way to make a lowcarb — or other special — version of an otherwise unacceptable food, they’re going to say something about it. It’s up to you to decide whether you believe their claims but, if they don’t explain, chances are that any amazing numbers are a mistake.

For example, if a package of noodles list 4.7g carb per serving and all the other brands list 47g for the same serving size, it’s not hard to guess that the mistake was made. Is it possible to make lowcarb noodles? I certainly hope it is. But it’s highly improbable that a company that succeeded in doing so would keep it a secret.

How do we check out the math?

Let’s start by checking the math because that’s the same for every label. There are three things to check:

  • Divide the weight by the number of servings. Does it equal the serving size?
  • Does the weight plus an approximation of the water and ash content (estimate that from similar products in the USDA Nutrient Database) add up to the serving size? After all, a food has to be made of something.
  • Calculate the calories (grams of fat times 9, grams of protein and carb times 4). Does the answer match the reported calories within 10 to 20 (rounding could make the result a bit different)?

The numbers didn’t match! What should I do?

Let’s start with the easiest problem:

If your calculation is higher than the reported calories, and the food contains fiber, remember that manufacturers are allowed to exclude calories from insoluble fiber. So try leaving out the fiber (as if it were all insoluble) and see if that straightens things out. If your new calculation is now lower than the reported calories, the fiber is probably a mix of insoluble and soluble. (Remember that soluble fiber must be included as 4 calories per gram.)

If there are sugar alcohols present, the manufacturer is permitted to count them as less than 4 calories per gram. Each sugar alcohol has a different value. However, because the least digestible ones tend to be the most laxative (if you can’t digest it, it has to go somewhere), chances are the amount per serving is small. So count it as two calories per gram and see if your new calculation is in the right ballpark.

The numbers still don’t match!

In most cases, something is wrong with the label. Be careful!

A number of companies selling to lowcarbers omit certain ingredients from their carbohydrate counts. They claim that these ingredients are not digested or that they are digested by a non-carbohydrate pathway. Discussion of these claims, as well as several other food components that are currently classified as carbohydrates but are not digested, is outside the scope of this FAQ. However, it should be noted that unless and until the regulations are changed, these ingredients are supposed to be counted as part of the Total Carbohydrates. Even insoluble fiber, a nutrient that everyone agrees cannot be digested at all must be reported as part of the Total Carbohydrates.

Why should we learn about ingredients?

If you are familiar with the make-up of different ingredients, you can estimate the carb count from the ingredient list — a very useful tool for foods that don’t have nutrition labels as well as a way to spot “too good to be true” products.

For example, consider a cracker where the nutrition label indicates that the carbs come entirely from fiber, but the main ingredient is wheat bran. If you look up wheat bran in the USDA database, you’ll find that that 100g wheat bran contains 64.5g carb, of which 42.8g are fiber. In other words, for every 42.8g of fiber, there are 21.7g of bioavailable carbs.

Clearly, there is something wrong with that label. If the ingredients list had omitted some source of pure fiber that could jack up the fiber percentage enough to make that label correct, an error of that sort would trigger a recall. Therefore, the likely explanation is that the nutrition information is wrong. And, given the regulatory situation, will remain that way until the company decides on its own to correct the label.

Why shouldn’t we buy inaccurately-labeled products?

The only way to get the kinds of products or the business practices you want is to be willing to pay for them. Likewise, the only way to get rid of products or business practices you don’t like is to refuse to spend your money. If you think it is important to have lowcarb products with accurate labels, you need to vote with your pocketbook.

Next: Labels for Low-carb Dieters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *