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Nutrition Labels Aimed to Dupe Consumers—And How to Tell What You're Really Eating

When a sugary cereal like Count Chocula appears to be a healthy choice, you know something has gone terribly wrong with nutrition labels.
 
 
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Diane Cary still chuckles when she remembers the scene she witnessed in a supermarket cereal aisle. A mother and her child were haggling over which cereal to get. The mother insisted on Grape Nuts because she felt it was healthy, but the kid desperately wanted Count Chocula. Exasperated, the mom put both boxes side-by-side and proposed they review the nutrition labels and buy the more nutritious of the two.

When Cary passed the family again in another aisle, they had two boxes of Count Chocula in their cart. As it turns out, in a 100-calorie portion, sugary Count Chocula actually packs more of many vitamins than Grape Nuts (although it does have less protein and fiber).

Like the Grape Nuts-loving mom, many health-conscious Americans rely on nutrition labels to inform their food choices. The number of calories, fat, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals on the label can determine which box of cereal, loaf of bread, or energy bar one chooses to buy. Unfortunately, sometimes even the most conscientious label-reader can be misled.

Calories

A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Calories in minus calories out equals weight gain or weight loss. Right? So what’s the difference between an equal amount of calories worth of fresh fruit, and, say, Doritos? Or for a more equivalent comparison, between a whole food like oatmeal and a processed food with similar ingredients like Cheerios?

Melanie Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, points out even though the foods have the same number of calories, they often provide different levels of satiation. “Say you're eating an equivalent amount of calories of potato chips versus a banana,” she says. “There's no question that you'd feel a lot fuller if you eat the banana. So the calories aren't the same, because you're probably going to have to eat more later in the day to compensate. And then there is also the nutrients. You're getting a phenomenal number of nutrients from the banana. You're not getting any of that from the potato chips.”

Warner refers to a study published a year ago revealing that humans don’t absorb all of the calories in almonds. According to new estimates, almonds have 20 percent less calories than previously thought. What happened to the other 20 percent? They come out our other end, so to speak. Almonds are hard and brittle and a lot of the energy in them is packed within their cell walls, making it partially inaccessible to our digestive systems.

Compare that to many processed foods, which are so easy to chew, swallow and digest that David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating, derides them as “pre-chewed” and “adult baby food.” Warner agrees, saying, “As a general statement, it’s a lot easier for your body to access the calories from processed foods than it is from whole foods.”

Fat

Nowadays, label-conscious consumers are privy to a lot of information about the fat in their food. Total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, unsaturated fat—split into mono- and polyunsaturated fat—and transfats are all listed. Once upon a time, understanding this might have seemed simple. Fat was bad and saturated fat was really bad. Then we learned about transfats, which are the worst kind of fat of all.

Today the picture is more nuanced. Packaged foods advertise good fats: omega-3s. But this is still overly simplistic, and unfortunately, food labels do not provide enough information to make informed choices about fats. The good news is that a look at ingredient lists can help you make better decisions, provided you know your way around fats and oils.

 
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