The secret to reading nutrition information panels – Part 1: The Big X

Who is not familiar with the small, seemingly unspectacular label on the back of food packaging?

In the last few years, this label has increasingly gained in significance. Not too long ago, this information was only found on special products such as diabetic food products or low-fat & low-cal products. Today you’ll hardly find a product in the supermarket without those labels.

The first reason for this is customers’ growing desire for more transparency, but also clear legal requirements: the EU Food Information Regulation (in German: LMIV), which came into force at the end of 2011 and is supposed to standardize food labeling throughout Europe, determines the rules for a mandatory nutrition declaration for packed foodstuffs which has to contain the so-called Big 7 values (see chart 1). The LMIV Food Information Regulation has been valid and binding since the end of 2014 and allowed for a transitional period for obligatory labeling of nutritional values by 2016.

According to the previous nutrition declaration regulation, nutrition information panels only had to be declared on packaging if producers promoted special health or nutrition claims such as low-fat, in this case the so-called Big 4 values became mandatory. If you could read ’high in fiber’ on a packaging, then producers had to provide a so-called Big 8 nutrition labeling on the packaging.

Comparison of the different declaration types on a nutrition information panel
Comparison of the different declaration types on a nutrition information panel

The Big 4 label only lists three energy-releasing nutrients (fat, carbs, protein) and the resulting calorific value. The Big 7 basically shows the same details as the Big 4, but you’ll find 3 additional particulars: the amount of sugar as part of the total carb content, the amount of saturated fatty acids as part of the total fat content and the amount of salt.

In contrast, there’s a fundamental difference in the Big 8 declaration: here, the dietary fiber is listed separately. And this exactly explains the partly substantial differences for one and the same food item produced by different producers.

Depending on the analysis method used, dietary fiber is listed along with carbohydrates.

Although in Germany in general (unlike e.g. in the US) only usable /(net) carbs (sugar, starch) are counted to the total amount of carbohydrates and NOT the unusable ones (dietary fiber), however, this is handled in different ways by manufacturers. This is the reason why, when taking almonds as an example, which in reality contain approx. 3g of net carbs and approx. 8g of dietary fiber, we’ll find a total carb value of approx. 11g on some panels.
If the dietary fiber content is not listed separately, you should really look at the carb value with a critical eye. But beware, this does not automatically mean that the value is definitely going to be lower: it could just as well be that the manufacturer knows the different values for net carbs and dietary fiber, but decides not to list them separately. In this case, the total carb value effectively corresponds to the value for net carbs.

And where do these values come from?

In general, there are two different ways to determine the values on a nutrition information panel: either by direct analysis or using generally accepted values.

For so-called ’compound foodstuffs’, that means food that consists of a blend of several raw materials (such as packet soup, bread, frozen pizza, fruit yoghurt, nut mixtures, sausages and cold meat), we can determine the nutritional values e.g. on the basis of values already known for each single ingredient.

A nutritional value analysis carried out in a laboratory for recognized food testing uses a combination of different analysis methods.

We wish to pursue the steps of a nutritional value analysis using one of our breads as an example (our mild bread mix).

As we want to determine the nutritional values of a ready-to-eat food, first we bake a bread according to package instructions in a domestic baking oven in our private kitchen. While leaving it to cool, I fill in the analyse order form for a Big 8 order to be carried out by the analysis laboratory and make an online order at a courier service for pick-up. Then I cut off an approx. 300-gram piece of the bread, put it in a labeled food bag and finally, pack it together with the analysis order in a shipping box. I’ve just applied the shipping label, when a friendly courier rings the doorbell and, bang, the package is already on its way to the lab.

The very next morning, our piece of bread is in the lab and is cut up into portions for different analyses. Depending on the specific type of analysis, the portions are either finely chopped, dissolved in solvents or extracted, purified, separated etc. using solvents.

We will receive the result a few days later properly documented in an analysis report.

But what exactly happens when doing these analyses? What do the measured values really mean and at what level of accuracy can they be determined at all?

Continue reading part 2….

3 thoughts on “The secret to reading nutrition information panels – Part 1: The Big X

  1. Pingback: The secret to reading nutrition information panels – part 3: lab report – calories – and why they DO matter! - Dr. Almond International

  2. Pingback: The secret to reading nutrition information panels – part 4: lab report – carbohydrates - Dr. Almond International

  3. Pingback: The secret to reading nutrition information panels – part 5: how to use the right knowledge for weight loss - Dr. Almond International

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