The Real Food Guide

Let’s dissect a packaged food: How to read a food label (part 2)

2

How to Read a Food Label - Nutrition Facts Panel & Ingredients

Last week, I took a critical look at Welch’s Fruit Snacks focusing on the marketing messages that Welch’s uses to sell us on the idea that these products are “healthy” as an exercise about how to read a food label. With the choice of visuals and words used on the front of the packaging, one can certainly see why so many people might think that these fruit-flavored gummies are a healthy alternative to eating real fruit. This is why it’s important to look beyond the marketing statements and over to the back of the packaging where the government-mandated Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list are.

What does the Nutrition Facts panel tell you?

Almost all packaged food in Canada and the US is required to have a Nutrition Facts panel.

This panel tells you:

  • The serving size
  • Number of calories
  • Amount or % daily value of select nutrients

Nutrition Panel and Ingredients for Welch's Fruit Snacks

Compare apples to apples: watch your serving sizes

In this example of the Welch’s Fruit Snacks, you’ll see that the original Mixed Fruit flavor comes in two different sizes: 2.25 oz (64g) or 0.9 oz( 26g). Both are supposed to contain the same ingredients, yet the two different packages have different servings sizes (40g and 26g, respectively). To add to the confusion, the Reduced Sugar version has yet another serving size (23 g). For easier comparison, I’ve done the math and broken down the information from the Nutrition Facts panel to units per 10 gram-sized serving. you’ll find that they actually have slightly different values. (This is likely due to a certain amount of rounding that’s allowed).

 

 Mixed Fruit (2.25 oz package)Mixed Fruit (0.9 oz package)Reduced Sugar, Mixed Fruit (0.8 oz package)
Calories32.530.730.4
Sodium (mg)3.753.842.17
Total Carbohydrate (g)7.757.317.82
Sugars (g)4.54.23.5
Protein (g)0.250.380.43

It’s quite likely that the serving sizes are in part due to marketing since the ‘snack-sized’ smaller pouches both have less than 100 calories (this seems to be a magical number for those counting calories), and to make the “Reduced Sugar” version seem like a healthier option, the calories per serving are less than the regular version (although, the calories per equal serving is about the same).

What does % Daily Value mean?

All Nutrition Facts tables have a % Daily Value number, which refers to the percentage of a recommended daily amount of a nutrient provided in a single serving of the food product. The %DV are based on someone ingesting a 2000 calorie diet (which would be the approximate intake for active women, teenage girls and sedentary men). Since these  Fruit Snacks are marketed to school age children, then the amount of vitamins added to the product are as much or more than needed at least.

In this particular case, Welch’s lists the %DV of Vitamin A and Vitamin E to be about 25% of the recommended daily value for both the 26g and 40g serving sizes, so I can only assume that this consistency in %DV despite different serving sizes is due to the allowable range of measurements. Aside from that though, as I mentioned in Part 1, these two vitamins are fat-soluble, and this product has 0g of total fat. This means that while these vitamins have been added to the product, your body will have a difficult time absorbing them. With regards to the vitamin C, while there’s 100% of your daily value in a serving of Fruit Snacks, the artificially-added vitamin C is certainly missing the other nutrients that synergistically work to increase its usefulness and absorption in the body.

The nutrients reported in the Nutrition Facts panel aren’t all the nutrients you need

By law, the Nutrition Facts only has to report on 13 core nutrients: fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. Keep in mind though, that there are many nutrients (vitamins, minerals, co-factors etc.) that your body needs. You may notice that occasionally, a label will include nutrients like folate, magnesium, niacin, phosphorous, potassium, riboflavin, selenium, thiamine, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, and other vitamins and minerals – these aren’t required, but often a manufacturer will include them because the product is high in the nutrient, and thus becomes a marketable selling feature.

Dietary advice on your Nutrition Facts panel

You’ll notice in the example that there’s an additional table on the bottom of the two Mixed Fruit packages (left and center). This is the government-mandated “footnote” that appears when the packaging is big enough and it isn’t product-specific. It’s just “dietary advice” to tell you guidelines about how much fat, sodium and carbohydrates you should/shouldn’t be eating.

Ingredients list: Fruit Snacks are made with what?!

Regulations with packaged foods require that all ingredients are listed in order of descending volume, and the ingredient listed first predominates by weight.

The ingredients list for the Welch’s Mixed Fruit Fruit snacks reads as this:

Juice from concentrates (grape, pear, peach and pineapple), corn syrup, sugar, modified corn starch, fruit purees (strawberry, orange, raspberry, grape), gelatin, citric acid, lactic acid, natural and artificial flavors, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), Alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), vitamin A palmitate, sodium citrate, coconut oil, carnauba wax, red 40, yellow 5 and blue 1.

In the reduced sugar version the ingredients are:

Juice from concentrates (grape, pear, peach & pineapple), corn syrup, sugar, maltodextrin, modified corn starch, gelatin, fruit purees (strawberry, raspberry, orange & grape), citric acid, lactic acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), aspartame, natural & artificial flavors, coconut oil, carnauba wax, vitamin A palmitate, Alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), red 40, yellow 5, & blue 1.

What do these ingredients actually mean?

Juice from concentrates

This is, as it sounds, the liquid removed from fruit and concentrated down. In other words, it’s sugar, but from fruit. There is no fiber remaining, and due to processing, a lot of the nutrients are lost, which is why companies tend to add back nutrients like Vitamins A, C and E.

Corn Syrup

Another source of sugar, that comes from corn that has been highly-processed. Keep in mind that at least 65% in Canada and ~88% in the US of all corn is genetically-modified to be both insect-resistant and herbicide tolerant.

Sugar

Straight-up, regular old white sugar that likely comes from sugar beets. About 90% of all sugar beets processed in the US are from genetically modified sources.

Fruit purees

Essentially, mushed up fruit. Since there is no indication of organic-sourcing, there is a strong likelihood of exposure to pesticides since apples, grapes and strawberries are part of the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Dirty Dozen of produce with the most pesticide residue.

Gelatin

I’m actually a big fan of gelatin, as it can be a source of minerals and joint-supporting protein and has many other health benefits. However, as with other animal foods, ideally, you want to source the best quality gelatin you can – that is from well-raised, pastured animals, and I’d be quite impressed if a product like these Fruit Snacks actually contained good quality gelatin.

Citric Acid and Lactic Acid

Citric and Lactic Acid are used to give the Fruit Snacks a tart taste and act as a preservative*. Originally this acid was derived from lemons and limes, but now it’s more common to manufacture citric acid using corn steep liquor or molasses as a fermentation source, so if you’re concerned about the amount of GMO corn you’re eating, the same caution applies as before.

*Interestingly, the front of the package did say “No Preservatives”, but perhaps Welch’s can get away with saying that if they justify it as a flavoring agent instead?

Natural and artificial flavors

Flavorings are closely guarded industrial secrets, and their exact source or ingredients do not have to be disclosed if they are generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. Natural flavors, start out from something found in nature, though not necessarily what you might think. Castoreum is a vanilla-like flavor derived from the anal glands of a beaver. Basically, artificial flavors are molecules that have been synthesized in a lab that happen to mimic a known flavor.

Ascorbic acid (vitamin C), Alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), Vitamin A palmitate

These vitamins have been added to the Fruit Snacks as a way of providing more nutrition to the product. However, as I discussed last week, the added vitamins A & E may very well be useless in this “Fat Free” product because vitamins A and E are fat-soluble and thus require fat to be absorbed by the body.

The vitamin C that was naturally found in fruit has been all but stripped out of the fruit purees and juices and has been added back to the product without the cofactors and flavonoids which help vitamin C’s function and its absorption.

Sodium citrate

Sodium citrate adds a sour taste (like citric acid) and is also used as a preservative.

Coconut oil

While coconut oil is a good source of healthy fat, there must be a very minimal amount of this naturally-derived fat if these fruit snacks are considered “fat free”.

Carnauba Wax

This wax is derived from the leaves of a carnauba plant and gives these fruit gummies their shininess. It’s also used in products like car wax for the same reason. It’s been found to be safe, but that’s hardly a reason to eat something.

Red 40, Yellow 5 and Blue 1

These three ingredients are three good reasons why I don’t give these Fruit Snacks to my son. Canadians beware: in Canada, the requirements for listing artificial colorants like these are different, and as such, you’ll often just find the word “Colour” instead of the individual colorants used – this is the case for Welch’s Fruit Snacks products in Canada. The packaging here only says ‘colour’ instead of the dyes listed below. All three of these dyes have been linked to issues ranging from allergies and hyperactivity in children, to cancer. Even if these dyes are “safe”, they certainly provide no nutritive value, so why waste your body’s resources in trying to digest and eliminate them?

Red No. 40 is widely used in many processed foods and may cause hyperactive behaviour in kids. (source: “Agency revises advice on certain artificial colours“. Food Standards Agency. 2007-09-11. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008.)

Yellow No. 5 (also known as Tartrazine) is thought to be an anti-nutrient because it increases the amount of zinc excreted from the body and is thought to bind with zinc in the blood. (Source: N.I. Ward et al. J Nutr Med, Vol 10, 1990, pp. 415-31)

(If both Red #40 and Yellow #5 have been linked to hyperactivity in children, it’s startling and very very wrong that a food product like this can be actively marketed for school lunches!)

Blue No. 1 (also known as Brilliant Blue FCF in Canada) is banned in Norway, Finland and France, yet still allowed in North America. It’s generally regarded as safe, but if it doesn’t need to be there and has no nutritional value, do you want to chance it?

Aspartame

Aspartame is a popular sugar substitute, and it’s used in the “Reduced Sugar” version of Welch’s Fruit Snacks. If you’ve got phenylketouria or suffer from migraines, I’d definitely avoid aspartame. In addition to those conditions, it’s also been associated with a number of health problems.

Maltodextrin

Maltodextrin is a cheap sugar alternative that acts as a bulking agent without significantly increasing the sugar content of a food. This is one of the reasons why the total carbohydrate per gram-sized serving is higher in the “Reduced Sugar” Fruit Snacks, but the sugar content is lower. As with other additives, maltodextrin may be derived from GMO corn.

A healthy alternative to Welch’s Fruit Snacks?

What should you pack in your kids’ school lunches instead of Welch’s Fruit Snacks? You know the answer. It’s got one ingredient and can come in a multitude of flavors: fruit. Plain old fruit. Ideally, buy organic fruit if it falls under the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, but even a washed, conventionally grown piece of fruit is heads above Welch’s Fruit Snacks. Your piece of fruit won’t have a marketing campaign, but it also won’t have ingredients that are dubious at best and dangerous at worst. Don’t be fooled.

Have you learned something in this in-depth look at a food label? Or is there another product you’d like me to dissect? Let me know in the comments!


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Vivian is the founder of the Real Food Guide and a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN) who believes that each individual needs to go on their own Real Food Journey to find what works. While she herself eats a diet of real food (aka a paleo diet), some people may find that they can flourish on a vegetarian diet instead. However, universal to optimal health and well-being is good quality, nutrient-dense, Real Food.

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March 26 |

2 thoughts on “Let’s dissect a packaged food: How to read a food label (part 2)

  1. Andrea says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your message. It’s amazing how many processed foods out there are marketed as healthy – no processed food truly is. You’ll rarely see a commercial that talks about just pure foods. Once I went over to a real foods diet, there was no marketing campaign and no commercial that spoke to me anymore. However, in the past, I absolutely thought I was getting real vitamins and minerals from these products!

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