The first relevant piece of information on a nutrition label is "serving size." I don't think I've ever paid much attention before. But with the kids from one of my "food appreciation" classes gathered around, we deconstructed the nutrition facts on a bag of Tostitos corn chips piece by piece.
According to the label, the serving size for "restaurant style" chips is one ounce. But how many chips is that? Did anyone ever bother to measure, as they were diving into their bowl of guacamole?
Well, we did. I had brought my kitchen scale for the occasion. And as all the kids watched and counted along, we weighed the chips precisely. The answer: eight chips. Those eight, rather large chips, according to the Tostitos label, contain 140 calories--60 of them from fat--as well 120 milligrams of sodium, one gram of dietary fiber and two grams of protein.
Not a terrible food choice, we concluded. But hold on a minute. What do 140 calories mean, exactly to, say, and 8-year-old girl?
That, in fact, turns out to be a very interesting question. Because the nutrition values given on food labels are all based on a diet of 2,000 daily calories. That turns out to be an adult diet. Our theoretical 8-year-old girl--more than one of whom were standing right in front of me--needs something more in the area of 1,200 to 1,600 calories. That's the opinion of the American Heart Association, anyway, describing the caloric needs for various age groups of "sedantary" children.
Suddenly, those eight corn chips constitute one-tenth of the all the caloric needs of our hypothetical 8-year-old for the entire day.
There's more to these nutrition values that needs to be sorted out. Why, I wondered, would Kraft Foods hold to the 2,000-calorie standards with a kids' product like Lunchables. Yet that is the basis for the "nutrition facts" on the Lunchables label. This particular food product, with an ingredient list that looks like a recipe for an atom bomb, is already full of fat and sodium. But if you adjust for a kid's dietary needs, it's even worse.
For instance, Lunchables Ham and Cheese Cracker Stackers delivers nine grams of saturated fat, or 45 percent of the recommended daily dose. But if you adjust that to a 1,400-calorie child's diet, the saturated fat ratio grows to 64 percent. Likewise, the 930 milligrams of sodium in our Lunchables meal--39 percent of an adult dosage--constitutes 55 percent of an 8-year-old girl's daily needs. But you won't see that anywhere on the label.
Some of these numbers definitely got the attention of my young students. For instance, a single serving (one-sixth) of a 32.7-ounce DiGiono Rising Crust Supreme Pizza contains a whopping 370 calories, 140 from fat. More than a third of that is saturated fat. Even worse, that one slice of pizza contains 1,000 milligrams of sodium. That's 42 percent of an adult's sodium requirement for the entire day, but 61 percent of what a child might need.
Sometimes the devil really is in the details. We compared two types of macaroni and cheese, both made by Kraft. They're sold in virtually identical boxes, but one is labeled "Spirals," the other "Thick 'n Creamy." The label on the "Spirals" says it contains two servings, each packing 290 calories (50 from fat), 15 milligrams of cholesterol and 580 milligrams of salt. The "Thick 'n Creamy," meanwhile, makes three servings, each with 380 calories (140 from fat), 5 milligrams of cholesterol and 580 milligrams of salt.
What's the difference? Well, the "Spirals" are made with just one tablespoon of butter and three tablespoons of fat free milk. The "Thick 'n Creamy" calls for four tablespoons of "spread" (I guess it could be margarine) and 1/2 cup "milk," which presumably could be whole milk--the instructions don't specify. (I still don't understand why the "Spirals" are so much heavier in cholesterol.)
Otherwise, both products contain a laundry list of space-age ingredients. Again, all of the nutrition values are based on an adult-sized, 2,000-calorie diet. It leaves you wondering how many moms out there ever stop to tease out all the "Nutrition Facts" on these products and the potential consequences for their kids.
One of the primary objectives of our "food appreciation" classes is to steer kids away from processed foods and expose them to the benefits of fresh foods made from whole ingredients. Still, it's impossible to avoid processed foods in this world. So I wanted to show them that even in the realm of industrially-made food there are alternatives worth considering.
For instance, we looked at some popular snack foods. Chex Mix Sweet 'n Salty lists a serving size of one-half cup. We measured it out and gave everyone a look. It's not terribly much, swishing around in the bottom of a bowl. Still, that one-half cup contains 130 calories, 35 from fat, as well as a disturbing amount of sodium: 280 milligrams. An alternative might be unsalted mini-pretzels from Snyder's of Hanover. The one-ounce serving has 110 calories and no fat. The sodium comes in at just 75 milligrams.
We also compared hot dogs. Just one Oscar Meyer Jumbo Weiner--containing beef, pork and chicken--delivers 170 calories, the vast majority--140--from fat. In fact, the saturated fat in just one dog is a whopping 16 grams or 35 percent of the allotment of our hypothetical 8-year-old girl. The Oscar Meyer dog also contains 45 milligrams of cholesterol and a scary 680 milligrams of sodium.
Meanwhile, a Ball Park Bun Size Smoked White Turkey Frank has just 45 calories, zero fat and just 10 milligrams of cholesterol. But this dog also should give parents some pause, as it does contain 420 milligrams of sodium. It doesn't take long to see that most processed foods are fairly high in sodium--not a healthy thing.
Studying food labels is not a favorite pastime for children. They'd much rather be making food and eating it. But by the end of the class, they do grasp the importance of some of the numbers and I was encouraged to hear that for most of them, processed foods are not a big factor in their diets. To end the class, we made a comforting bowl of oatmeal: 150 calories per one-cup serving (cooked), 25 from fat, no cholesterol, no sodium and 4 grams of dietary fiber. They were perfectly content.