News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Health & Wellness

Nutrition Labels Don't Tell Whole Story


The Food and Drug Administration requires makers of most prepared foods to list nutritional information on the package. In our KERA Health Checkup, Sam Baker talked to a registered dietician with U.T. Southwestern Medical Center about how to make sense of what's on the label. Lona Sandon begins with Percentages of Daily Value.

Lona Sandon: Percentage of Daily Value is based on if everyone ate a 2,000 calorie a day diet. So, the easiest way to use that percent daily value is to determine if you're getting too much or too little of something. There's certain nutrients on the food label like fat, sodium or cholesterol listed. If that daily value is close to 20 percent, that tells you that that food is high in those items. Or for things like vitamin A or vitamin C that are usually listed at the bottom, if the daily value is around five percent, then that tells us that food doesn't have much vitamin A or vitamin C. So for those nutrients we'd want it closer to 20 percent. For the fat, cholesterol and sodium, we want closer to five percent daily value.

Sam: And usually what's at the bottom, I notice, when you look at those labels, it's not very much next to iron or vitamins, seemingly.

Sandon: Those levels are pretty low typically

Sam: In processed foods?

Sandon: In processed foods. You would see those numbers - vitamin A, C, iron, and vitamin D - go up if you were buying fresh fruit and vegetables, which don't require a food label.

Sam: Why is that?

Sandon: Processed food has a very specific manufacturing process that it goes through; everything should always be the same, theoretically. Whereas if you have apples grown in the state of Washington or apples grown in the state of Minnesota, there nutrient value might be different because of the different growing periods, the soil and that sort of thing. And so you don't have a consistent product, per say, when you're dealing with fruit and vegetables.

Sam: How do we make intelligent choices about what products to buy with sodium?

Sandon: Guidelines with sodium say to get no more than 2,300 milligrams per day. What you want to look for for sodium is for low sodium food or food to be called "low sodium," it has to have less than 140 milligrams per serving.

Sam: Doing research on this, it came quite often and this is concern about the serving sizes listed on the label and whether or not they're realistic in terms of what people actually eat.

Sandon: The serving sizes that are listed on the label are what we call standard portion sizes. These standard portion sizes were set 50 years ago. So these sizes don't truly represent what a typical portion is that someone will serve in a bowl or on their plate. Most people don't know how much they're eating because they're not measuring that portion size out. So when I work one on one with clients, I do ask them a couple of times to do that to see what one cup of cereal looks like in a bowl, and they're often quite surprised. But we've also gotten to a point where we're very accustomed to large portion sizes, portion sizes that are two, three, four times

Sam: What we should be consuming.

Sandon: what we really need to be consuming. We need to find a happy medium between what the food label calls a portion size and what we might typically serve our self, especially if that portion that we're typically serving is leading to weight gain.

Sam: In the meantime, while you say the labels do help and provide information, what would you like to see added to them or changed?

Sandon: If they're going to keep the daily values on there, they need to update them. A lot of the numbers that those daily values are based on are old numbers, and are not current with the numbers that were determined by the Institute of Medicine in the late 90s, early 2000s. Maybe make those nutrients that are more health benefitting more prominent. What a lot of manufacturers have done is starting to put the information on the front. There's not any standard format at this time. That's all under a lot of discussion. In general, people want to know what's good for them. They want it up front where they can see it. They don't want to take a lot of work to turn it around or read a complicated chart or look through extremely small print to determine ingredients.

Lona Sandon is a Registered Dietitian with U.T. Southwestern Medical Center.

For more information: