New Castle News

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March 3, 2014

Mitchel Olszak: Giving nutrition a new look

NEW CASTLE — How many people look at the nutritional data placed on food packages?

I mean really, really look at them, assess the numbers and act on the information.

My guess is that the public response to these labels is a mixed bag. Some people inspect them intently and others don’t even notice.

But if you want it, the information’s there. You get a sense of calories, fat content, vitamins, protein and assorted other data affecting human health.

Of course, then you have to decipher it.

Anyone who keeps tabs on nutritional studies knows there’s lot of competing and conflicting reports out there. Many times, these are used to help support assorted diet plans presented as the best way to lose weight or maintain health.

It’s all enough to give you a headache. If fat is bad, what about unsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat? To what degree do these impact cholesterol in the blood? And what about the proper ratio of “good” and “bad” cholesterol?

Is it best to pursue a low-fat diet? Or should we focus on low-carb consumption? And what’s the importance of fiber? And should it be the soluble or insoluble kind?

What prompts all of these questions is news that the Food and Drug Administration is proposing another round of changes to nutritional labels on food. Presumably, it will still be the same food inside, but the FDA wants to make the size of type for the calorie count bigger (apparently so it’s harder to ignore). It also wants to specify how much of the sugar in the product has been added.

Plus, there is a push to make serving sizes more realistic. For instance, a serving of a 20-ounce bottle of soda would be the full contents. The idea is to give consumers a clearer idea of what they are actually eating or drinking.

And by extension, this may goad manufacturers into making changes, such as encouraging smaller bottles of soda or products that contain less sugar.

Will it work? I don’t know. For many people who pay little attention to nutritional labels now, it probably won’t make a bit of difference. But perhaps a little more focus on calories and sugar will give lots of Americans second thoughts about what they are eating.

There seems to be a growing consensus in the field of nutrition that the consumption of empty sugar calories is a major contributor to obesity and other health problems. While fat potentially packs more of a caloric wallop, the processed sugar Americans consume may be the greater danger.

Thus the argument goes: Get Americans to better recognize the sugar they are eating and they will consume less. If this happens, the overall health of the nation improves.

There is no doubt that improved education can lead to better health results. Just last week, it was revealed that the latest studies indicate a decline in childhood obesity in America, following efforts to highlight the problem. Because obesity can be a lifelong health concern, preventing it in children may produce huge health dividends over time.

So you can count me among those who applaud overall efforts to improve public access to nutritional information. But the problem of conflicting and confusing data remains. That’s the next problem nutrition experts should address.

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