Nutrition Labels Don’t Tell the Whole Story. . . and Cereal Doesn’t Protect You from H1N1

  • November 4, 2009

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Is there anything nutrition labels can’t do? They brag about the
fiber in cereal, urge us to see the health benefits of mayo, and now
they even alert us to the ways that breakfast cereal can keep us safe
from swine flu!

But wait. That last one has gotten some attention
from critics pointing out that Cocoa Krispies, though quite fortified
with vitamins, are not a good food for keeping healthy during flu
season. The resulting media storm comes as the FDA moves to clarify the rules for “front of food” labels, the colorful ones (like the ubiquitous “Smart Choices” check mark) that go on the front of packages.

It
got me thinking about the more traditional and less-controversial
Nutrition Facts labels, the ones that have been required on food
packages since 1990.

First, a quick quiz:

Below are the nutrition facts from two breakfast cereals. Which one do you think is a healthier option?

Before I tell you which products these labels belong to, I’ll share a little story.

Last
week, my Sunday paper was delivered along with a free, individual-sized
sample of a sugary breakfast cereal. I don’t think I’ve ever actually
purchased this cereal before (though I later learned that my wife grew
up on it. . . which explains why I later found the empty carton in the
garbage), so I was intrigued to read the label.

What stood out
to me was how healthy the nutrition label seemed. It was quite similar
— based on the nutrition label — to the cereal I eat myself, and even
to the cereal we feed our son. In fact, at first glance, the nutrition
label for the sugar cereal may even look a little better than the label
for the cereal I feed my kid. I mean, it lists more fiber, more
vitamins. . . not bad. And the packaging even highlights the additional
fiber in each serving. Maybe this is health food at its best?

So to the average label-reading consumer, cereal #1 seems great. (Of course, the average label-reading-consumer is already confused by what these labels mean, but that’s a story for a different day.)
Labels
aside, it didn’t make sense to me that a highly processed sugary cereal
would be more healthy than a less-processed one. The next step, then,
is to check out what’s actually in the cereal.

Let’s
look past the big bold letters of the Nutrition Facts and read the
smaller print of the ingredient lists. Check out the lists below and
ask again: which one is a healthier option? The labels are in the same
order. And remember: ingredients are listed by weight, so the first
ingredient is the one that’s used most in the product.

To
me, this experience illustrated  how unhelpful a nutrition label can be
without context and information about ingredients. (And I’ll take
cereal #2, please.)
In the context of school food, this experience parallels the changes that the Institute of Medicine is recommending
that schools move away from nutrition-based menu planning and moving
toward food-based menu planning. This would mean that meals would be
designed to focus on green and orange vegetables, for example, rather
than on certain milligrams of vitamin B6 and Riboflavin. It puts the
concept of real food into the way we think about our meal planning —
both at home and for kids at school. It’s a simple, common-sense system
that can help us avoid the trap of purchasing foods just because the
numbers read well on a label.
And for those inquiring minds… Cereal #1 and Cereal #2.