Reading And Understanding Food Labels

Reading And Understanding Food Labels

What’s On The Label
Everybody is familiar with word search games where you must find words hidden in vast columns of primarily random letters. The words can be written vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. In addition, the words can be written left to right or right to left. I hate those kinds of word games! Unfortunately, the nutritional analysis labels of manufactured food products are a lot like word searches.

It would be nice if the food manufacturers were required to honestly list the nutritional analysis of their products on the label, but they aren’t. In fact, in some cases they are required by law to not include certain food elements, such as glycerin, in their food counts. If I can be indelicate for a moment, this is a crock!

In addition, food manufacturers and processors are allowed to round nutritional counts for protein, fat, and carbohydrates up or down, and they are permitted to manipulate serving sizes to their advantage as well.

All this tom foolery leaves the public – not just low carbers – in the lurch. No one can get an accurate overview of a particular food without understanding how the nutritional analyses are manipulated, how to determine where “hidden” nutritional facts are buried, and how to unearth them.

Let’s take a look at the components of the nutritional labels, and then we’ll get into how the food processors and manufacturers manipulate the data that they are required to place of their labels.

Food processors and manufacturers are required to place basic nutritional information on their labels. They are required to state the serving size and the number of servings in the box or package. The nutritional analysis on the box or package is for a “serving” size, and must include the total number of calories per “serving,” as well as the total grams of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. In addition, the amount of saturated fat, the insoluble fiber, the sugars, and the sodium are to be listed.

Seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the food processors and manufacturers have been given a number of legal loopholes – and they use every single one of them to their advantage, not ours. Let’s take a look at some of the loopholes – perfectly legal loopholes – that are allowed by law.

Serving Size
Serving size is the easiest and most obvious manipulation by the food industry. By making the serving size of their product small, the food processor or manufacturer can make their product appear to have fewer calories, less fat, or less carbohydrates.

For example, back my bad ol’ high carb/low calorie days, I used to enjoy Grape Nuts for breakfast. I remember taking a quick look at the nutritional information on the box and thinking, “Hey, 110 calories. Not bad.” But one day, while chowing down on my favorite cereal, I happened to give the box a little closer scrutiny. That 110 calories was for a 1/4 cup serving size! Now, I ask you, who on God’s green earth eats 1/4 cup of cereal for breakfast?!? Not me! I had routinely been eating a cup or so of the stuff – 440 calories worth! A quarter of a cup hardly accounted for the bits that got stuck between my teeth!

It’s a sad day when the cold, cruel truth comes up and smack you right in the kisser, isn’t it? (Sigh.) The moral here is that it’s always important to check the serving size of whatever it is that you’re eating.

You also have to be honest with yourself about how much of a particular food you’re eating. You have to base your nutritional calculations on the serving size stated on the package, not what you consider a serving size. Saying you only ate one serving of sugar free pudding because a “serving” to you is at least a cup or more, while the box says a serving is 1/2 a cup is self-defeating.

Rounding The Numbers
Food processors and manufacturers are allowed to round their nutritional counts either up or down. They use this ability in conjunction with unrealistic serving sizes to make their products appear to be “better,” that is, have fewer calories, or fewer grams of fat or carbohydrates.

Any nutritional count which is less that 0.5 may be rounded down to “0” in the nutritional analysis on the label. Any nutritional count which falls between 0.5 and 0.9 may be labeled as ”

One of the biggest shocks to new low carbers is to find a product, such as heavy or whipping cream, that is labeled as “0” grams of carbohydrates per serving and then later finding out that this isn’t true. There’s usually a lot of gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair when they find out the truth. “How can they lie like this?” the new low carber wails. “It oughta be illegal!”

Well, it isn’t. Here’s why. Heavy or whipping cream has 6.6 grams of carbohydrates per cup. There are 16 tablespoons in a cup, and most of the labels for heavy or whipping cream state a serving size of 1 tablespoon. 6.6 divided by 16 is 0.4125, and that is the number of grams of carbohydrates in a tablespoon on whipping cream. Since the amount is less than 0.5, it can legally be labeled as “0.”

But it isn’t.

Exempted Ingredients
To make matters even more complicated, certain ingredients are exempted from the nutritional analysis on food labels. For low carbers, the most important ingredient that this applies to is glycerin, which is a major component in the low carb protein and candy bars.

Glycerin is exempt from the carbohydrate count in these (and all) products because, according to the infinite wisdom of the USDA, glycerin is a carbohydrate which is not processed by the human body and therefor it should not be included in the nutritional analysis.

More wailing and rending of garments by new (and sometimes not-so-new) low carbers….”What do you mean the carb counts are inaccurate on the bars?!? Those shysters! Why do they do that to us?”

In this instance, the food processors and manufacturers really aren’t at fault. Why? Because the USDA requires them to label their products that way. They don’t have a choice. If they gave an accurate carbohydrate count on the bars, they would be breaking the law.

Exempted Manufacturers
Once in a while, sometimes more than once in a while, you will run across a processed food product that does not have a nutritional analysis on the label. How do the so-and-so’s get away with this?

It’s simple. If a business is very small, they are exempt from the nutritional analysis requirement. This is understandable, and even fair, I think, although it is irritating. Having a food nutritionally analyzed in an independent laboratory is very expensive. If every fledgling food processor had to have their products nutritionally analyzed, there would be very few new or small food processors or manufacturers out there because they simply couldn’t afford to go into business.

That is not in anybody’s best interest, because it would stifle entrepreneurship and culinary creativity, and it would leave the food manufacturing playing field to the giants like General Mills, Kraft, and Kellogg’s. These giants would have no incentive to change what they produce because there would be no competition from the smaller food processors or manufacturers. Our only choice would be to buy what the giants offer or not buy at all.

Hopefully, one day the low carbohydrate community will be the mainstream, but we’re not there yet. We need the small food processors to fill the particular niche market which we represent.

Inaccurate Labels
Sometimes labels are just plain inaccurate, so always take what they state with a grain of salt. The USDA requires accurate labeling, but the agency does not have the funding to actually test the thousands of various food products on the market. The USDA has to rely on the food processors and manufacturers to make accurate statements on their labels, and sometimes the food processors and manufacturers don’t do that.

Yes, some of it is corporate sleight of hand and dishonest, but that is not always the case. I have seen several food labeling errors that were merely misprinted labels. In these cases, the manufacturers corrected the errors either immediately or as soon as they ran out of the misprinted labels.

In other cases, the baseline nutritional analysis has been inaccurate. Several years ago, Lee Rodgers of The Low Carb Retreat was skeptical about the nutritional labels of the low carb tortillas offered by La Tortilla Factory, so he and a group of his subscribers had the tortillas nutritionally analyzed at their own expense. Lee wasn’t surprised that the carbohydrate count was inaccurate, and posted the accurate count on his lists and his web site. He also sent the information to La Tortilla Factory, and to their credit, they changed their label to reflect the new (and accurate) nutritional analysis immediately.

Not all food processors and manufacturers respond so positively and willingly as La Tortilla Factory did. Some will just tell people “Tough luck,” and turn their backs. Those types of companies should be shunned, and companies like La Tortilla Factory should be supported.

Finding The Hidden Carbohydrates In Processed Foods
According the US law, all fat and protein must be accounted for in the nutritional analysis on food labels. This is not true of carbohydrates because glycerin is exempt from being included. So, how do you know if the nutritional analysis of the food you’d like to eat is accurate?

There is a simple formula to determine if there are any hidden carbohydrates in processed foods. You can do your own “hidden carb investigation” on any food. With the formula, you can account for the calories represented by the total fat grams, the protein, and the total carbohydrate grams listed on the label. Since all the fat and protein must be accounted for in the nutritional analysis on food labels, but not all the carbohydrates, any calories which are not accounted for with the formula represent hidden carbohydrates in the food.

Let’s look at an imaginary food label and see if we find any hidden carbohydrates. Here’s what the label says:

Calories: 250 Total Fat: 10 grams Saturated Fat: 4 grams Protein: 11 grams Total Carbohydrates: 15 Fiber: 5 grams

First of all, ignore the saturated fat and fiber listings; they are irrelevant and we don’t need to use them at this point. Look only at the total calories, total fat, protein, and total carbohydrates.

Each gram of fat contains 9 calories. Each gram of both protein and carbohydrates contains 4 calories. By multiplying the total fat grams by 9 and the protein and total carbohydrate grams by 4 and then adding the totals, we can determine exactly how many calories are accounted for by the information listed on the label.

Multiply the total fat grams by 9.9 x 10 = 90

Multiply the protein grams by 4.4 x 11 =44

Multiply the total carbohydrate grams by 4.4 x 15 =60

Add the totals. 190

Subtract the total calories represented by the fat, protein, and carbohydrates listed on the label from the total number of calories per serving.

Total calories per serving: 250

Total calories from the fat, protein, and carbohydrates: -190


There are 60 unaccounted for calories in this made-up food. These are hidden carbohydrates. Since carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, divide the “extra” calories by 4.

60 divided by 4 = 15.

There are 15 grams of hidden carbohydrates in this fictional food.

Where To Find Information About Food Counts
When the problem with the accuracy of the nutritional information is due to serving size and rounding, it behooves us to know the accurate nutritional information about the foods we routinely eat.

In order to learn the carbohydrate counts of different foods, it’s essential to have a good carbohydrate counter. Personally, I prefer Corinne Netzer’s The Complete Book Of Food Counts because I think it’s the most comprehensive, but there are others available. Carb Counting Books

Some people like to jot down what they’ve eaten during the day and then log it into a nutritional analysis program. There are a number of free nutritional analysis sites available via the Internet. One of the most popular is FitDay. You can also buy a nutritional analysis program if you wish. My favorite is Diet Power. You can download a free 30-day trial program to try it out and see if you life it before you buy it.

It’s important to not only know the nutritional breakdown of specific foods, but also of the recipes you use. It’s amazing how quickly the carbohydrates in a seemingly innocent recipe can add up! You need to have an accurate nutritional breakdown of a realistic serving size so you know exactly where you stand.

Both FitDay and Diet Power allow you to add your own recipes to their data banks so that you can easily add them to your food log, but I prefer to use Master Cook, a program available just about anywhere. Master Cook gives you the ability to import and export recipes with just a couple of clicks rather than having to type them in manually. It saves a lot of time.

So what’s a low carber to do? The first this is pretty obvious. Know what you are eating! With the exception of unprocessed meat, fish, and fats (butter and oils), every single food has some carbohydrates. Read the labels. Read the labels. Read the labels. Look at the nutritional analysis and also look at the ingredients. Have a good, comprehensive food counts book available or use one of the online sites of programs to help you.

If you are in doubt as to the accuracy of the label – which should be any time the carbohydrate count is zero – use the formula given above to check for hidden carbs.

Keep a food log of what you have consumed, and report what you’ve eaten honestly and accurately. If you do not know the nutritional information for one of the foods you’ve eaten, look it up.

And it bears repeating……

Read the labels! Read the labels! Read the labels!

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