Nutrition Labels on Food

Table of Contents

Labels

Sodium

The idea of a low sodium diet is to consume less sodium.

Context

In the view of corporate executives in the capitalist economy, pProduct labels are part of the narrative of a product – it is space paid for by the manufacturer .  Industry likes to control the narrative.  Miller Lite, in commercials “tastes great” and is “less filling”. Campbell Soup advertises its products as full of healthy ingredients.  The chunky versions could be eaten with a fork. Canned soup may be many things. It is high in sodium which is problem

The legal definition of food adulteration may be limited to contamination or the use of unsafe ingredients; the law requires  food companies to label cheese flavoured products and to admit when processed cheese is not a cheese product.

American manufacturers and sellers of goods and services assert free speech rights in advertising as commercial free speech.  Mandatory labelling is compelled commercial speech. Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio, 471 U.S. 626  a 1985 decision of the United States Supreme Court, established a constitutional standard where the government can mandate commercial speech, in the form of disclaimers, as long as the information is “purely factual and uncontroversial”, serves a related government interest, and is meant to prevent consumer deception. The lower US federal appellate courts have addressed the content and context of mandatory disclosure:

  • fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury – proper [National Electrical Manufacturers Association v. Sorrell, Kassel, (Vermont) 2001];
  • graphic depictions of cancerous organs on cigarette packages – improper; [R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. FDA 2012];
  • country of origin of meat – proper [American Meat Institute v. US Department of Agriculture 2014];
  • jewellery is sourced with blood diamonds – improper [National Association of Manufacturers v. SEC. 2015]

Wine fraud may involve forgery, unsafe ingredients or misleading presentation.

In Europe in 2017-2018, the regional variation of ingredients became a food scandal – the product is not what was expected by the buyer:

Nutrition Facts

Disclosure of the ingredients of packaged food on the package or a labels is required in the USA and Canada. The disclosure is a quantified ingredient list on the package or label, a table headed “nutrition facts”. This table is on almost everything that has been processed and packaged. It is not on raw meat, fresh fruit or fresh vegetables.

It is not a list of all ingredients. To get a complete list, it is necessary to have access to the databases kept by the government agencies that store the information. The table on a product label will identify sodium in almost anything that has been packaged,

The Nutrition Facts tableis not always clear. The table lists values per “serving”. The manufacturer choose the serving size. Most manufacturers of soy sauce (a high sodium processed condiment) list the sodium in mg. per tablespoon. The American organic food producer, Braggs labels its Liquid Soy Seasoning as containing 320 mg. sodium per 5 ml. – a mere teaspoon. A tablespoon of Braggs Liquid Soy Seasoning contains 960 mg. sodium – about average for a soy sauce.

There is a second number  – a percentage of the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) Recommend Daily Allowance (“RDA”) per serving. The RDA percentage is useful for some decisions but the RDA is not a prescription or a guaranteed safe allowance – it is high for many people. 

The label can identify sodium in packaged food cooked into a prepared meal.

Labelling of ingredients of restraurant meals is resisted by the food processing and food service industries.

Sodium Searching

Resources

Some authors put the information in recipes in books and magazines.  

The main data repository is the USDA collection of Food Composition Databases. It is comprehensive and powerful but does not seem to have a consumer friendly search interface. 

There are other data sources on the web. For instance, there are online converters, cooking aids, and Calorie Counters.

Searching for “calorie” or ingredients in a search engine brings up a results including some other tools to search for nutrition facts.

Information sources may  promote a fad or a personal theory. Buyer beware.

These resources are scientific and fact based:

Methods and tips

Finding the sodium in a dish or meal prepared at home involves finding the sodium in each ingredient of each dish. Calculating the sodium in one serving of a soup made with fresh ingredients required adding up all the sodium in the ingredients, estimating the number of servings in the pot and dividing the sodium. 

Where is the sodium in prepared food?

  • bacon, ham, sausage or prepared meat;
  • packaged soup, broth, canned vegetables,
  • processed sauces;
  • cheese;
  • toppings or dressings

Pouring off the juice from canned goods, if that is possible, reduces sodium.  For recipes with canned, packaged or pre-cooked ingredients the most effective approach is

  • giving up when a recipe requires a can, or even a cup of a branded soup or sauce – that’s a sodium hit in itself;
  • salt is added to almost anything for flavour according to recipes and kitchen practice. It is unnecessary to add salt to the cooking water boil potatoes or cook rice;
  • if a recipe calls for a sauté in bacon, use oil;
  • use no added sodium ingredients – checking the label for any sodium.   The Eden Organic lines of canned beans are zero sodium ; other canners have introduced no sodium lines;
  • no salt added is not sodium free; a no salt added product is a better choice than the regular product. For instance, no salt added broth has far less sodium than the regular product in a product line;
  • Frozen green beans, peas and corn are low in sodium, but not zero sodium;
  • Time and energy considered, cooking broth and dry beans may be less expensive and help keep out sodium.

Campbell Soups No Salt Added Chicken Broth has sodium at 40 mg. per serving.  RDA percentage 2% (1.7% rounded up). Campbell Soups No Salt Added Vegetable Broth has sodium at 20 mg. per serving  RDA percentage 1% (0.86% rounded up). the serving size is 150 milliters or 2/3 of a cup. A 900 milliliter (4 cups) tetrapack of chicken broth has 240 mg. of sodium.The RDA percentage makes it easy to identify the no salt added product as a better choice than the regular choices in the product line.  Calculating the sodium per serving of a soup or stew takes a spreadsheet with numbers for each ingredient and a sense of the serving size.

For salad dressing one manufacturer may use a smaller serving size which make the sodium, by RDA percentage, seem lower. For mayonnaise, the serving size seems to be standardized at 1 tablespoon.  But 1 tablespoon may mean 13 or 15 mililiters, and products vary:

  • Kraft Real Mayo 70 mg. 3 %
  • Kraft (regular) 77 (or 70) mg. 3%
  • Kraft Caloriwise Real 90 mg. 4 %
  • Kraft Miracle Whip Regular 115 mg. 5%
  • Kraft Miracle Whip Caloriwise 140 mg. 6%
  • Hellman’s Real 90 mg. 4%
  • Hellman’s 1/2 The Fat 135 mg. 6%
  • Hellman’s Organic 90 mg. 4%
  • Neal Brothers Organic (250 ml glass jar, Canadian, artisinal and expensive) 85 mg. 3%

At some point I may put this information in a table that will be part of this post or a future post.

Mayonnaise has a bad reputation with health inspectors.  Mayonnaise made with raw eggs can be a food safety hazard.  But packaged processed mayo is not necessarily the unsafe ingredient. It becomes unsafe when food made with the mayo is left at a termperature at which bacteria grows in food.

Squeeze bottles hamper measuring and invite overly generous portions.

Condiments can easily be overserved – It is easy to consume several “servings”.  An olive in a Greek salad, or on a pizza, or in a martini adds a few hundred mg. sodium.

There are several pepper sauces (e.g. Frank’s Red Hot), with 180 mg. of sodium per teaspoon.  “Traditional” McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce has 35 mg. per teaspoon.  Other Tabasco Sauce brands (e.g. Louisana Gold) are up to 175-200 mg. per tsp.


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