Please Explain: Food Labels

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sugary cereals claim to be "heart healthy" and packages that say a food is "all natural" still have a list of mysterious ingredients. On today’s edition of Please Explain, Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University, and author of the blog, and Urvashi Rangan, Director of Consumer Report's and Consumers Union's Director of Technical Policy, join us to explain how to decipher the real information from the marketing claims, and let us know what to look for in the nutrition facts–and what to avoid—when we’re choosing our foods in the grocery store.


Marion Nestle and Urvashi Rangan,

Comments [38]


The best way to stay away from trans fats is to check the ingredients--don't even trust it if one the front if it says "no". If you see "partially hydrogenated" anywhere in the ingredients, then it does contain transfat.

Apr. 18 2010 12:54 AM
Richard from Montclair, NJ

If a label says 0 grams trans fat, that means .5 or less per serving since rounding .5 or less does result in zero.

Look for "no" trans fats on the label. There's no rounding tricks in that word.

Apr. 17 2010 01:36 AM
Ken Leebow from Atlanta, GA

As always, an informative discussion with Marion Nestle and your other guest. Unfortunately, while informative, it also demonstrates how confusing food and food-like substances can be.

Thanks for the discussion,

Ken Leebow

Apr. 16 2010 04:04 PM
Mary from Manhattan

Marion Nestle's comments about stevia were misinformed. There have been many studies on stevia rebaudiana, a plant from South America, proving that it not only does not raise blood sugar levels, it is beneficial for stable blood sugar levels. It has been used in Japan for forty years.
The reason that it has not been allowed as a food additive up until now (only one brand is being allowed) is because the lobbyists for the sugar industry have fought against this designation for stevia for years. Stevia has no calories and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. The sugar industry knows that stevia will eventually be big business so while they have been fighting it for years they have also bought up many stevia fields to ensure that they will be on that gravy train as well.
Don't be fooled by PureVia or TruVia, the new Coca Cola and Pepsi sweeteners which use rebiana, an isolated component that they combine with other ingredients like erythritol. They do this in order to get around trademark laws... you can't own the rights to a natural plant extract. Billions of dollars are at stake here.
Rebiana has barely been studied, but the companies are claiming safety by citing the many studies on steviosides.
Ms. Nestle should be more responsible when speaking in a public forum. If one has no knowledge of a topic one should not speak as an expert on the air.
The human and financial cost of obesity, diabetes and hypoglycemia in this country could be greatly affected if stevia were used more widely.

Apr. 16 2010 02:26 PM
jawbone from Parsippany

I'm somewhat taken aback that your guests seem to believe there is no difference in how the body uses sugar and HFCS.

Please follow up on this: HCFS is ubiquitous. I do read labels carefully, but when I looked for the grams of sugar, I did not always check to see whether it was HFCS. I am doing so now, and there are staples I will no longer purchase.

However, it seems from today's discussion, it is not always easy to determine its use.


Apr. 16 2010 02:04 PM
jawbone from Parsippany

From Princeton study, cont'd:

The second experiment -- the first long-term study of the effects of high-fructose corn syrup consumption on obesity in lab animals -- monitored weight gain, body fat and triglyceride levels in rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup over a period of six months. Compared to animals eating only rat chow, rats on a diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup showed characteristic signs of a dangerous condition known in humans as the metabolic syndrome, including abnormal weight gain, significant increases in circulating triglycerides and augmented fat deposition, especially visceral fat around the belly. Male rats in particular ballooned in size: Animals with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained 48 percent more weight than those eating a normal diet.

"These rats aren't just getting fat; they're demonstrating characteristics of obesity, including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides," said Princeton graduate student Miriam Bocarsly. "In humans, these same characteristics are known risk factors for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes." In addition to Hoebel and Bocarsly, the research team included Princeton undergraduate Elyse Powell and visiting research associate Nicole Avena, who was affiliated with Rockefeller University during the study and is now on the faculty at the University of Florida. The Princeton researchers note that they do not know yet why high-fructose corn syrup fed to rats in their study generated more triglycerides, and more body fat that resulted in obesity.

Apr. 16 2010 01:57 PM
jawbone from Parsippany

Post about Princeton HCFS study:

Direct link:

"Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn't true, at least under the conditions of our tests," said psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight and sugar addiction. "When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they're becoming obese -- every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don't see this; they don't all gain extra weight."

Apr. 16 2010 01:57 PM

any comments on the johns hopkins studies that seem to indicate that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose?

Apr. 16 2010 01:57 PM
Steve from Morristown

The guests are giving more "motherly advise" than facts.

YES - Agave is used to make Tequila.

Not all sugars are created equally.
High fructose corn syrup is BAD BAD BAD and yes it is used to extend shelf life

Your guest, back in September 2009, Susan Allport had it her book "Queen of Fats".

Apr. 16 2010 01:57 PM
Meryl from BRooklyn nY

how well does water work whe nyou wash veg and fruits? should you use one of the veg wash products?

Apr. 16 2010 01:56 PM
Alexis C from Downtown Manhattan

What about high fructose corn syrup versus sugar? Still just sugar? Or is a drink with grape juice better than one with high fructose corn syrup? Sam question for ketchup with HFCS vs. the same with sugars.

Apr. 16 2010 01:55 PM
mary white from NY

A friend of our has a child with juvenile diabetes. The family is meticulous about measuring the child's blood sugar. They say that the child can eat ice cream when in France because the ice cream has sugar in it, but cannot eat ice cream in the US because the ice cream has high fructose corn syrup. The child's blood sugar spikes if he eats ice cream here but did not when they went to France for a few years. Since they have years of data of measuring his blood sugar every few hours, does this finding sound reasonable to you? Is there something to be learned from this, or is this just a case of one child?

Apr. 16 2010 01:54 PM
listener from Florida


Apr. 16 2010 01:54 PM
Rob from Long Island

What sort of seafood do the panelists eat, with all the labeling - farmed, wild, etc. - and the various websites to follow (e.g., Monterrey Bay) to know which fish are not endangered, full or mercury, etc.? Thank you.

Apr. 16 2010 01:54 PM
Rebecca from NJ

If fructose in agave syrup is the harmful sugar, then is Brown Rice Syrup the same or different?

Apr. 16 2010 01:54 PM
S from Bushwick

No one has pointed out that although ingredients that are "organic" or "natural" may not be much healthier than other ingredients, they may have immense benefits for the environment and the workers who harvest them. Regular sugar vs. organic sugar, for example.
(Are Chilean blueberries really helping the Chliean economy if the workers are underpaid and overworked?)

Apr. 16 2010 01:53 PM
jawbone from Parsippany

I read about a recent study from Princeton which found a definite difference in how rats metablolized and used HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) compared to regular sugar.

One group of rats were fed sweetened solutions made up of water and sugar to be equal the real sugar used in soda; the second group was fed a HFCS solution, but at only half the amount used in soda.

The rats fed real sugar solution did not gain weight; the rats fed HFCS solution not only gained weight, but they showed the constellation of symptoms known a Metabolic Syndrome in humans.

It seems that the liver processes regular sugar, but the HFCS seems to go directly to fat.

Link to follow.

Apr. 16 2010 01:53 PM
Rachel from new york city

What about the fructose in honey? Or more importantly, what about fructose in apples or other fruit? Should one avoid those too?

Apr. 16 2010 01:52 PM
Mark from Manhattan

Carbon Monoxide as preservative in vacuum packed fish???

Apr. 16 2010 01:52 PM

What about coconut sugar? Is that a good substitute for cane sugar?

Apr. 16 2010 01:51 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC

What about Stevia?

Apr. 16 2010 01:50 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Last month's Nutrition Action (from Center for Science in the Public Interest) said that high-fructose corn syrup had 55% fructose, which *is* a little higher than the 50% fructose in table sugar (i.e., refined cane sugar). But the reason it's called high-fructose is that after processing, it's higher than the % of fructose that occurs naturally in corn syrup.

Apr. 16 2010 01:50 PM
Peter from Kensington Brooklyn

what does hydrogenated mean, and why are those oils so bad for us?

Apr. 16 2010 01:50 PM
Megan from Brooklyn

Great article on agave on Huffpost recently:

Apr. 16 2010 01:49 PM
Brave Dave from UWS

How about honey? Is it less-bad for us as a sweetener than sugar, agave, etc.??

Apr. 16 2010 01:49 PM
Elaine from Baltimore

Why do some products list nutritional information based on 100 g rather than a serving size? I think it's mainly on imported products.

Apr. 16 2010 01:48 PM
Jane from New Jersey

Doesn't all the HFCS come from GM corn?

Apr. 16 2010 01:47 PM
nell from Ocean grove nj

i eat only organic foods and a lot of the products list "natural flavors" I'm always confused as to what the origin of this flavor is.

Apr. 16 2010 01:43 PM
Karen from New York

I recently bought some "USDA organic" certified green tea online. Among other "tea-like" ingredients, it lists "natural flavor." What does that mean?

Apr. 16 2010 01:43 PM
Ali Banisadr from New York City

What is "Natural Flavors"? another name for MSG?

Apr. 16 2010 01:41 PM
James from Bronx

What do you make of the fact that obesity has risen greatly over the last 15 years despite food labels?

Apr. 16 2010 01:39 PM
Erik from bushwick

I have been using stevia as a sweetener and am really happy with it. 0 calories and depending on the brand, no aftertaste!

my question is why is it generally only sold as a dietary supplement and not as a healthy alternative to sugar?

Apr. 16 2010 01:39 PM
Diane Henderson from wayne, nj

What does "no added hormones or antibiotics" mean? Not added in the raising of the animal or not added during processing? If the animal is not free-range or "organic" what does this mean exactly? Thank you. Regards, Diane

Apr. 16 2010 01:38 PM
James from Bronx

I usually divide the calories by the number of grams of fiber. Ideally the ratio will be less than 60. If everything you eat has a ratio of <= 60, then you will get at least 30 g of fiber in a 2000 calorie diet.

Apr. 16 2010 01:37 PM
Opal from Manhattan

When someone tells me "it's all natural" (the latest buzz word) I respond that poison ivy is all natural also.

Apr. 16 2010 01:36 PM
Arthur from Metuchen, NJ

Multi-grain Cheerios sounds like a healthy alternative to regular Cheerios but it's actually the opposite. Multi-grain Cheerios gets its name because corn is used in addition to the oats used in regular Cheerios, resulting is less nutrition.

Apr. 16 2010 01:31 PM
marisa from NYC

generally, people buy the same food brands over and over, but only check the label the first time you decide to purchase that brand.

Shouldn't the packaging have to alert you that the information has changed?

Apr. 16 2010 01:27 PM
George from Bay Ridge

When did we start putting labels on food?

Who determines the calorie count on labels?

Apr. 16 2010 10:24 AM

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