Additional Math Pages & Resources

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fun Food Math, Part 4: Labels

Math and food seem to go together in our post-industrial age, especially on our food labels.

And how did I know researching and producing this page 2 days ago, that the US would slap the hands of 17 companies for their deficient or misleading labels!

In the European Union, Nutritional Labels must indicate a food's 
  • energy value
  • amount of protein, carbohydrate, sugar, fat, saturated fatty acids, dietary fibre and sodium
The energy and nutrients are given per 100g or per 100ml. In addition, they can be expressed per package or per portion. Vitamins and minerals must be shown as a percentage of the recommended daily allowance (RDA). Nutrition labelling may also include  mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids, cholesterol and certain mineral salts and vitamins.

This information must be placed together, in a clearly visible place on the package, in legible, indelible characters and expressed in easily understood words in the local language of the buyer.

Despite all the hard work on numbers and facts, people are still very confused. The Europeans are now considering the stop light approach - red bad, orange fair, green good. Here's an example from the UK:

This label was much more effective than the typical ones in helping people decide the healthfulness of food. Red - danger - don't buy. I can see how the food producers don't like that, but then maybe they should mix up ingredients in a healthier way??

The USA's labeling requirements are long, complicated and amusing to read (discussions on the weight of one cherry, variations in size of fish and pickles, do-it-yourself pizza kits, etc.) The result is about the same as in the EU, a complicated label revealing what the food contains. Lots of numbers.

I found some nifty software programs aimed at food producers. They allow you to enter all your food's ingredients, then generate the appropriate labels for the regions where you want to sell. They save lots of math and typesetting hassles, I'm sure. And there are companies that audit your labels to keep you IN compliance and OUT of trouble. Why are these services needed?

 Many labels are likely to be wrong. But that doesn't necessarily mean they are wrong in the healthy direction ...

You can get nutritional data yourself from the USDA's food database site.  Choose the first search option and enter your choices.

Government agencies spend lots of their time and our money figuring out what food is good for us:

The mission of the Human Nutrition Research Center is to research food ... optimizing human health and reducing the risk of nutritionally related disorders ... how dietary components interact with genetic, physiological, sociological, and environmental factors and affect the health of the American population ... 
You probably grew up with a food quality research director in your own house: Your Mom.

If she's not around, use your forefinger instead. Put it over the label. If you can cover the whole list of ingredients with your finger, then buy the food. If the list of ingredients is longer than the width of your finger,



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