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Weight Control

Serving Sizes on Packages Can Be Misleading

You may be eating more than you think

trail mix

— Photo by Chris Mueller/Redux

And, she points out, not all calories are created equal: “A serving of a gelatin dessert is 80 calories, and a serving of skim milk is 80 calories, but in no way are they comparable in terms of nutritional value.” The gelatin dessert gets its calories almost entirely from added sugar, while the calories in calcium-rich milk are from protein and natural sugar.

“People need to check the percentage of daily value listed for various nutrients on the label. If there are lots of zeroes, it’s a tip-off that this food could be worth about zero nutritionally,” she says.

Another reason people don’t notice serving-size information is because they assume they know what a typical serving should be.

One bottle, two servings

For example, take the bottle of Honest Tea Cranberry Lemonade that you grab to have with your lunch. One bottle equals one serving, right? No. The label says the bottle contains two servings, so the calories listed are just for half the bottle, or one serving. Do most people realize they’re drinking nearly 100 calories if they finish the whole bottle?

Often the packaging can be deceptive as well. Check the label on that little package of ramen and seasoning that you assumed was just for one. It’s really two servings. Eat the whole package with the seasoning mix and you’ll be getting half a day’s worth of salt.

The problem of labeling extends to restaurants and vending machines, where people often have no idea how many calories they are consuming. That should improve under the new health care reform law, which requires chain restaurants and vending machines to clearly display calorie counts for their foods.

Deciphering the nutrition label can be so challenging at times that Taub-Dix has written a book about it. Due out Aug. 31, it’s called Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time.

  •  Beware of sodium per serving size. A can of soup, for example, may list sodium for only half a can, or one serving, but you’ll need to double that amount if you’re eating the whole can—as most people do.
  •  Check for sugar. The label doesn’t differentiate between natural sugar (like the kind in fruit) and added sugar (like corn syrup or white sugar). Check the ingredients list. If sugar or high fructose corn syrup is the first or second ingredient, it means that food is mostly made of added sugar.

For those hoping the clarity of food labeling will improve, don’t expect any dramatic changes soon. The FDA’s DeLancey says discussions about label revisions “are still in progress. There are a number of moving parts at this point.” Though the process can be long and complex, she adds, “the sausage is being made.”

Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the Bulletin.

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