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Not Knowing How to Read a Nutrition Label Can Lead to Weight Gain

A milk-loving friend of mine excitedly called me up a few weeks ago proclaiming that she had discovered a 98% fat-free milk that tasted delicious. I shared her excitement because I also love milk. We both drink three to four glasses a day of non-fat or skim milk and although we are saving calories, we have to admit that it leaves much to be desired in the taste and texture department. Our dream has always been to find the lowest- calorie milk that tastes like a full-cream version or at least as close as possible to it.

When she handed me the small plastic bottle, I immediately looked at the nutrition label. Good thing it has become an ironclad habit of mine to always look at the nutrition information listed behind most food products because the milk had much more than 2% fat.

How was this possible? How could the milk be advertised on the front of the product as being 98% fat-free when it was not? Let’s just say that the manufacturer did nothing wrong legally and was telling the truth. Confused? My friend sure was and I would have been too if I hadn’t learned long ago how to become a nutrition label detective.

You see, there are so many products on the supermarket shelves today that manufacturers need to use catchy phrases to convince you to choose their product over the competition. If you are health and fitness conscious, advertising blurbs like calorie-reduced, non-fat, cholesterol-free, lite, etc. will surely catch your attention.

Manufacturers cannot use these phrases without complying with the government’s definition of these terms. So, they are telling the truth but the truth can be stretched a little. Let me give you an example with products that claim to be “salt-free”.

A product can legally claim to be salt-free even if it is high in sodium because “salt” refers to “sodium chloride”. If the product contains only sodium but no chloride, it really is “salt- free”. However, if you are salt-sensitive, it doesn’t mean it is safe for you because it is the sodium part of salt that causes high blood pressure and water retention, not the chloride. By the way, many products that aren’t salty at all contain substantial amounts of sodium. Check out the nutrition label at the back of your favorite breakfast cereal. You just may get surprised.

When it comes to claims like the milk product mentioned above, Judith Wills of The Food Bible points out that the percentage of fat quoted by manufacturers on the front of their products is usually the percentage of fat as compared to the total weight of the product not the total calories. This makes their product appear to be less fattening.

Here is Wills’ explanation from her book. “Another anomaly regarding fat claims is that the percentage of fat content often quoted (e.g., French fries – only 5% fat) is misleading to say the least. By this, the manufacturer means that the fries contain 5% of their total weight as fat – i.e., 5 grams of fat per 100 grams of food. This does not mean that the fries only contain 5% of the total calories in the food as fat. All food – including fries, meat, cheese, and so on – contains a high or fairly high percentage of water (e.g., lean meat is 74% water, oven fries are about 60% water, hard cheese is about 36% water), which is calorie-free. So 5% of fat by weight turns out to be a much higher percentage of the total calories. Five grams of fat equals 45 calories, as there are nine calories per gram of fat. There are about 160 calories in 100 grams of oven fries. So the real amount of fat in the fries is 28%!”

98% fat-free milk products like the one that my friend discovered are also sometimes advertised as 2% percent milk. An unknowing consumer might believe that only 2% of the total calories come from fat. The nutritional information at the back of this particular product showed that it had 140 total calories and 5 grams of fat, which equals 45 calories. So the product actually had 32% fat. Boy, was my friend shocked.

She was even more shocked when I explained to her that if she had used this product to take the place of her usual non-fat milk, she would be adding an additional 135 calories to her daily caloric intake since she was used to drinking three glasses of milk a day. If she was the kind of person who only drank milk once in a while, those extra calories are not a big deal but since she drinks milk everyday like I do, they will eventually add up into unwanted pounds.

The ending to this story is that I drank the milk, found it to be utterly delicious, and sighed, “How I wish my 80-calorie, 0% fat milk tasted like this”.

 


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