Picking through the labeling jungle


Have shady labeling practices left you in the dark?

Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Newsletter points out chicanery in the way food labels report sodium.

Manufacturers often present nutritional information based on smaller serving sizes so products appear to have fewer of their undesirable ingredients. In fact, of the hundreds of products tracked by the Food and Drug Administration from 1977 to 1986, changes in serving size always were down, never up.

Sometimes this doesn't make much difference.

In the past, a serving of bread might have been listed as two slices. Now information is given for a one-slice serving. This is to our advantage, I think, because most of uswould find it pretty easy to add up the number of slices we've eaten, then multiply by the information for one slice.

Tuna gets a little trickier. Information is given for a 2-ounce serving, but the can contains 3 1/2 ounces. Even if you ate the whole thing, water-packed tuna is so low in fat (1.2 grams for the can) and calories (115) that a small error wouldn't make much difference. But if sodium is your issue, pay attention. There are over 400 mg per can. While not outrageous, it should certainly be counted on your way to your 2,400 mg/day limit.

Turkey ham gets trickier still. Prepackaged Butterball Turkey Ham admits to 35 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 390 mg of sodium per slice. Louis Rich Turkey Ham, on the other hand, contains only 12 calories, lessthan a gram of fat, and 130 mg of sodium per slice. However, this slice weighs only 11 grams compared to 28 grams for the Butterball slice. If you ate the same weight of each product, the numbers would be close to equal.

Thin slicing could still be an advantage for consumers: If you typically put two slices of meat on a sandwich, you're better off with thinner slices, especially with high-fat meats like salami, where a typical 28 gram slice contains 5 grams of fat. A very thin slice might be just enough to give you the taste you've been dying for without blowing your fat budget. A super thin slice of salami combined with two slices of natural turkey would contain only 2 grams of fat and 100 grams of sodium, but a much-improved flavor.

Hot dogs might be an issue. Labels traditionally give information per hot dog. If you're concerned with ounce-for-ounce comparisons, this can be misleading. Eight-to-the-pound hot dogs weigh in at 140 calories and 11 grams of fat. Ten-to-the-pound hot dogs contain just 110 calories and 9 grams of fat. But ounce-for-ounce, the calories and fat are about the same.

The question here is whether anyone would eat 1 1/3 hot dogs. I think not. If you must have real hot dogs, have one of the smallest dogs, and bury it in a great big bakery fresh roll. Follow up by filling up on a delicious fresh fruit salad.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

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