Checking Nutrition Facts Does More Harm Than Good

by | Jun 1, 2016
Photo by Enokson

Photo by Enokson

Most people don’t believe me when I say I remember learning about mitosis in 5th grade, but I do.

And I’m not talking about the kind of remembering where I vaguely recollect learning *of* it. I was fascinated by the stages of prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telephase, and couldn’t believe that our chromosomes did such a beautiful dance every time a cell would divide.

I mean, have you seen it?

In high school, biology was always my favorite subject. I even took an extra class in physiology just for funsies.

And after dicking around as an English major for a few years at Berkeley I ultimately graduated with a degree in molecular and cell biology. (I won’t tell you the kinds of grades I got in my MCB classes, because you’d hate me.)

That’s how much I love biology.

As you can imagine, this kind of devotion to the microscopic secrets of the human body added plenty of fuel to the fire of my dieting obsession.

Calories, carbs and fat counts? Couldn’t get enough of ’em. I had piles of notebooks filled with each sinful and virtuous molecule I consumed, and took an embarrassing number of nutritional supplements.

Had the Quantified Self movement been around back then, I would have been a disciple. (Soooooo glad it wasn’t).

I know the temptation to count and quantify what you eat. It feels good.

It feels like control. But it isn’t.

I’ve explained before how nutrition facts on labels can be grossly inaccurate and how moralizing your food choices can create unhealthy eating behaviors.

But an even more straightforward reason to avoid the allure of nutrition facts is that they are a distraction.

One of the most persistent delusions most of us live under is that more information leads to better decisions. But a significant amount of behavioral research (here’s a nice summary) has shown that more choices are more likely to confuse you and create decision paralysis.

Even if you choose something despite the information overload, you’ll probably be less happy with your choice since you can never be sure if you truly made the best decision.

I’m not arguing that valuable information isn’t valuable. If you don’t know that a tablespoon of oil (any kind) is 120 calories, or that this package actually contains 4 servings instead of 1, that is probably good to know.

But if you’re looking at a label thinking, “Ooooohhhh, that’s a lot of sodium. But all that calcium has to be good, right?” then there’s a good chance the food industry is pulling the wool over your eyes.

Big Food doesn’t hate you, but they don’t exactly respect you either. They know that food health trends sell products, and at the end of the day that is their goal. If more calcium is good for you, all the better. But they don’t really care that calcium supplements don’t actually make you healthier.

Unless you find out. Then they totally care.

When you’re at the store comparing two (or more) items, don’t try to figure out which is healthiest by comparing fiber, protein and sugar levels. Just look at the ingredients.

That way you can know if the nutrient levels actually come from Real Food, or if they were just added to “health wash” an otherwise unhealthy product.

But even when looking at the ingredients, you should be skeptical.

Food marketers are starting to get wise to our desire for Real Food. I’ve noticed an uptick in the past few years of health washing seeping into the ingredients list to make things sound more natural.

When I wrote Foodist I found nearly 50 code words for sugar. Today there are many more, and I’m starting to see things like “Organic Palm Kernel Solids” on ingredient lists, which is code for saturated fat.

Sounds a lot more friendly, right?

You’d actually be better off eating pure butter than the protein bar I found this in, which contains a whopping 12 code words for sugar.

Natural saturated fats aren’t bad (processed fats are), but anything with that much added sugar can’t be a health food. And this particular bar is most definitely marketed as a health food.

I know how hard it is to keep processed foods out of your life completely, and that’s not what I’m suggesting.

I just don’t want you looking at nutrition labels and fooling yourself into believing something is healthy when it really isn’t.

Originally published May 6, 2015, before the FDA announced their new nutrition facts labels. This article remains as true as ever. 

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23 Responses to “Checking Nutrition Facts Does More Harm Than Good”

  1. Donna says:

    I wish I had a consolidated list of what to avoid in terms of ingredients. It’s so hard as a layperson to know what an ingredient “really” is.

    • Beth says:

      I think that people are actually getting smart to the fact that we have had nutrition facts there to snow us over, and now people are more ingredient conscious. Hence, a dozen different words for sugar–the companies are catching on! But I think that this can work back right around to our advantage.. which involves actually going back to the nutrition facts.

      For example, I often look at wraps and yogurt for fiber content. But unlike many people, I make sure the fiber content is LOW. When these things are minimally processed, they are not going to have more than one gram of fiber per serving–maybe 2 for wraps. But when they are high in fiber–more than one gram for yogurt with fruit, and more than 3 or so for the wrap– I know I don’t even need to bother with the ingredients list. Prebiotic fiber, defatted soy grits, inulin, .. it doesn’t matter what the term is, if you see on the nutrition facts that there is fiber in something that SHOULD NOT HAVE FIBER, you don’t need to know the term!

      Alternately, I have noticed tons of new fake sugar formulations recently. Again, looking at the nutrition facts and seeing that something only has 10 calories and is flavored like fruit or something is enough evidence that there is some sort of fake sugar in the product — you don’t need to know which ingredient is the fake sugar.

  2. Jessica Chaney Blushi says:

    I have the same fond memories of bio and physiology!

    I really try to avoid the processed stuff. Solves that problem. I do track all of my food for the sake of keeping/getting my weight on track.

    I cheat sometimes, who doesn’t.

  3. YoureWrongThough says:

    There are no “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods. There are only macronutrients and micronutrients and minerals. Some foods are very dense in certain types of macronutrients you want less of (say, a donut) and some are not (celery and chicken).

    Calories in/Calories out has repeatedly been proven to work in maintaining a healthy body size. Macronutrient watching has been repeatedly proven to work in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Sugar on its own is not inherently unhealthy. Saturated fats on their own are not inherently unhealthy. You’re doing the exact reverse of the fear-mongering “Big Food” does in praising certain ingredients by demonizing certain other ingredients.

    Since you seem to mostly address sugar as the demon here, see what Menno Henselmans has to say on carb sources –

    And you’ve got to admit he looks pretty decent. Definitely a healthy body type.

    The nutrition label is EXACTLY what you need to look at to determine the health-value of food. And you need to total these up over the course of the day. How many calories have you consumed versus your dietary needs for the day? How many grams of protein, carbs, and fat have you consumed versus your dietary needs for the day? THIS is the answer you need. Not being afraid of a simple nutrient or ingredient.

    There are no sentient macronutrients out there looking to cause you harm.

    • Emily says:

      I get what you are saying, but I feel like you may have missed the point. If you’ve read Foodist or much of Summer Tomato, you’ll see that Darya is against demonizing certain types of foods and against claiming that a certain nutrient is a miracle. She is for making healthy eating automatic and eating reasonable amounts of real foods with exceptions where you feel they are worth it. I think the point with the sugar and saturated fat is that the protein in those bars don’t make that bar healthy. And if you’re going to have sugar or saturated fat, wouldn’t you rather have them from a big old steak or a nice slice of Aunt Carol’s homemade turtle cheesecake than from a mealy protein bar? I think she just wants us to be aware that food labels are tricky and you should be wary of them if they tout their health claims too loudly.

  4. Carmen says:

    I totally agree. Looking for natural ingredients, instead of concentrating on carbs and proteins, is so much more important.

    Sometimes we concentrate a lot on diets, but we forget about fitness, sports and other healthy habits.

  5. Kitty says:

    I totally agree that it is important to look at ingredients and I always do. Quite often that leads to me putting a product back on the shelf.

    At the same time, I personally have used looking at nutrition labels in losing the 56 pounds I’ve lost. I don’t think I should look only at the nutrition facts. I always look at both the nutrition facts and the list of ingredients.

    First, it does give me some guideline on calories. Yes, I recognize that the label might not be exactly correct and I assume that if it is off, it really has more calories than shown. But, still, there are sometimes foods that surprise me and have way more calories than I expected. In that case, I want to know that and, if it is too much, will choose something else.

    Second, while I don’t try to eat a specific percentage of fat or specific amount of protein, I do pay some attention to carbs. I find that if I have more than a certain amount of carbs in a meal (even whole grain carbs), it will raise my blood sugar more than I would like (I am not diabetic but I do have some insulin resistance). While I pay a lot of attention to type of carbs in the ingredients, I have found that the total amount of even “good” carbs can be important to me so I like to get an idea of that number (again recognizing it may not be totally accurate).

  6. Stacey says:

    Same here! I also try to avoid processed foods but the thing is when there isn’t any alternative and I succumb to eat them anyways LOL! Makes me think that I really shouldn’t eat out as much and just eat home cooked meals every day. 🙂

  7. Kanti says:

    First time here…discovered this destination just a few days ago.

    Reading “…dicking around as an English major…”, it amusing. May be that is why you write so well, Darya!

    Being in marketing myself, when I see a label yelling “good for you” or “heart healthy” or some such claim, my defenses go up. And, when I see a designer ingredient such as “Organic Palm Kernel Solids”, I view that as a way to charge more for it.

    These days, food labels don’t matter much to me. Now, I read them partly for fun and partly to educate myself further but are not big factor in my food choices.

    I have been a lacto-vegetarian most of my life. Routinely, I eat legumes, grains, nuts, fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables and cook at home *most* of what I eat from scratch. It’s Indian spicy and tasty. Yes, I love my own cooking.

    So, what I buy “processed” is narrowed down significantly: non-fat milk and plain yogurt, margarine and vegetable oils, and 100% rolled oates. Bread is an issue which I need to buy; but I limit it to 100% whole wheat pita. But, lately, about half the time, I make my own Indian bread from 100% whole wheat flour.

    Until a few years ago, I wasn’t “aware” of what I was eating. What triggered a change was seeing my picture posted on Facebook. Over the past two years, while I have lost 25% of my weight, I have educated myself about food, fitness, and health; and ignored the debate about low-carb vs low-fat or this vs. that. I NEVER cared for any diet plan, food club,or any workout plan promising miracles.

    I eat real food, exercise moderately, and am healthy. [I didn’t need to say that I eat real food; but so happens that what I eat is real food.]

  8. Suzanne says:

    I think a safe rule to live by is: if you can’t pronounce the ingredient, you probably shouldn’t be putting it into your body. Our family tries to eat as healthy as we can at times, so this is very helpful. Thanks for sharing!

    • Courtney M says:

      I agree with Suzanne. The motto in our house is, “If you can’t read it, don’t eat it”. Sure, there’s always a grey area… We’re human after all, but we, as a family really try to eat foods that are in in their natural state…the way God intended them to be.

  9. Lisa M says:

    I heard advice about five years ago that has worked for me. Essentially it is, eat cookies if you want them, or french fries, or any other food like that — just make it yourself from scratch. The thinking is that you will neither feel denied, nor will you eat these foods very much because making them is a pain. It also means you know you are eating, sugar and butter et. al. and can’t fool yourself into thinking it’s something healthy.

    • Judith says:

      That advice comes from Michael Pollan, whom Darya mentions as someone who understands about real food. Two other quotes of his: Don’t eat anything that your grandmother would not have recognized as food. And his classic – Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

  10. Thomas Hood says:

    I need those quantities and so do those like me with heart failure who are on warfarin and must avoid salt. I was warned that a single serving of collards, a traditional food here, could kill me by causing another blood clot in the heart. After hospitalization I was so afraid of food that for a month I lived off nothing but corn flakes. I have found that I can control the liability of the blood to clot by alliums, hot pepper, and alcohol. I no longer fear food, but I need to know the quantity of vitamin K and sodium in the food I eat. Absolutely. Please don’t knock those labels.

  11. Dee says:

    We generally shun ready-made, manufactured food but only use them for convenience – certainly not nutrition.
    But I recently (inadvertently) got my 4yo. Interested in calorie knowledge … I was checking the label on a kit- Kat for how many calories….(.I know I should be making home made snacks!)….106 calories that’s not bad… Then she asked how much calories is her milk drink… And a next day her chocolate candy coated almonds. She still does not know the correlation between calories and getting fat…lol

  12. The ingredients list certainly does give the better view for deciding if you want to buy it or leave it.

    I love that term “health wash.” I had not heard it before. Really gives a good picture of what is being done to fool the consumer if they are not careful.

  13. Stuart Nelson says:

    I definitely agree the ingredients list is more telling than the nutrition facts, and when I buy items that have an ingredients list I try to make sure it’s a pretty short one.

    But a couple years ago when I first changed my lifestyle and started losing weight, I really struggled with figuring out what I should buy at the supermarket. I remember spending an hour getting through just two aisles and still having nothing in my cart! One thing that helped me move past that and start making healthier choices a bit more easily actually was in the nutrition facts: grams of sugar per serving. Any more than 2 or 3 grams (5 or 6 at the most) usually meant I would find sugar or at least one thing ending in “ose” in the ingredients list anyway and I could usually just throw it back on the shelf without having to read any further. Since so much processed food contains added sugar, avoiding the sugar helped me cut out a raft of other chemical nasties as well.

    There are of course exceptions but it was a good rule of thumb for me that helped me rule out unhealthy choices more quickly and get my shopping trips done in a reasonable amount of time.

  14. Stephanie says:

    I agree with this approach. I read ingredient labels but give little notice to the claimed nutrition breakdown. For me the best way to shop is to avoid the center aisles of grocery stores. Except for purchasing whole dried/canned staples such as beans. I shop the perimeter which for most grocery stores is where dairy, meat and vegetables are found. No need to read labels when buying locally sourced organic whole foods. I gauge the success of my shopping trip by how many items I put away in my pantry. The fewer the better.

  15. Lynn says:

    Great post!

    You echo my sentiments about labels exactly. I can’t get over the amount of energy gets wasted on “educating” people about the ” importance” of reading food labels when making ” wise food choices”. ……The good foods don’t come with labels. Fruits and Vegetables, Fish, Meat, Real Grains…..etc….. If it has more than 3 ingredients it belongs in the treat section of your pantry…… I knew the world had really gone to hell and a handbasket last week when when my grocery store introduced a new aisle devoted to “healthy chips”!! No GMO’s, gluten-free, less sodium and low in trans fats does not transform the standard junk fare into the stratosphere of wise food choices. Chips are junk that is fine once in a while, but making your chip selection based on some BS label as opposed to which ones are your favourite is being hoodwinked by the food industry. The food label, is nothing more than a marketing tool and it’s a damn brilliant one too… I have worked in sales and marketing for years and the best way to sell anything is to give the power to the customer and have the customer sell themselves the product……ie ….. Encourage customer to read food label…. Make ahem “informed decision” based on label. ……SOLD!!!….. Because people took the time to “educate” themselves about their choice, as opposed to impulse buy, they will be much more likely to make a repeat purchase of that item. I don’t expect the food industry to do anything other than make money for their shareholders….. That is their job. Our job is not to fall for their BS and the simplest way to get rid of their favourite marketing trick is stop reading labels and buying foods with no labels, claims, and fewer than 3 ingredients.

  16. Blossom says:

    Ignorance certainly is bliss. I spent HOURS at grocery stories comparing price and nutrition facts while everyone is waiting for me to get home lol.
    Protein bars–I just kinda gave up on them because most of them are CANDY! All that sugar, might as well get a twix. I’d recommend them if you’re trying to gain weight, though.
    Great post. This is definitely a topic long overdue!

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