Nutrition Facts Panels — a tool for healthy eating
by Nick Rose, M.S.
This article was originally published in June 2012
To help shoppers make informed food choices in our stores, PCC is developing a database to provide nutrition information for our deli-made foods. It’s a large project but we know this is important information that many shoppers want. We’re working on it — stay tuned for updates!
Less than half (37 percent) of U.S. consumers believe food package labels are “very credible” sources of nutrition information. This may be because food packages contain both factual information (4 grams of fiber per serving) and other marketing statements (“Cheerios will lower cholesterol”).
Nutrition Facts Panels (NFPs) are the familiar labels that list the calories, grams of fat, milligrams of sodium, etc. They simplify the nutritional content of a food so consumers can compare foods and make more informed purchases.
NFPs provide standardized nutritional information, but many shoppers still have to review the entire list of ingredients to ensure a particular food meets their specific dietary needs. The Food and Drug Administration will be updating NFPs over the next five years.
What NFPs tell us
“Following the fiber” is one example of how NFPs can be used to select healthy foods at the supermarket. Foods highest in fiber are vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. I often am surprised to learn that many people don’t realize fiber is found only in plant foods. Average intake of fiber in the United States is a dismal 15 grams per day (25-35 grams/day is recommended).
Many shoppers follow a low-fat diet while others only avoid saturated fats, and hopefully everyone avoids trans fats (banned at PCC). NFPs come in handy here, too, as they are required to provide detailed information on the types of fats found in packaged foods. NFPs also are essential for anyone managing hypertension, diabetes, or other health conditions treated with dietary changes.
What NFPs don’t tell us
NFPs help consumers quickly compare products based on standardized nutritional information, but more than 20 essential nutrients are not required on NFPs. For instance, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and potassium are important and essential nutrients, yet they’re optional on NFPs.
Probably the biggest problem with standardized NFPs is that they do not distinguish between natural and “added” sugars. This means the sugar content of apple juice looks identical to soda.
Another limitation of NFPs is that they don’t identify whole grains. The most reliable way to identify whole grains is to read the full list of ingredients. These examples highlight the limitations of NFPs as your only tool for healthy food choices.
The NFPs we’re working on for PCC deli foods will have additional information to help us quickly identify deli items that match our desired nutritional goals. When this information becomes available on our website, we’ll be able to search for deli items that are lowest in salt, calories or fat — or high in fiber, protein or vitamins, for example. We’ll highlight deli items made with whole grains and green leafy veggies.
In addition to helping shoppers make better food choices in our delis, we’re using this new information to improve the nutritional content of our deli-prepared foods. Finally, PCC is converting deli-scale recipes to the scale used in home kitchens so we can all prepare these recipes at home. Some of the most popular PCC deli recipes already are available. Search for them in the recipe database on our website.
Nick Rose has taught nutrition courses at Bastyr University and Virginia Tech. As a PCC Nutrition Educator, he teaches “Walk, Talk and Taste” classes at PCC stores.