Are You Using Food Labels For Maximum Benefit?

Food labels tell you what’s in the food, how many calories a food item contains, and how much sugar, sodium, fat, and carbohydrates you’re getting with each serving. Is that enough?

Ask any nutritionist or fitness trainer, and they’ll answer that question with a resounding “Yes.” Food labels tell you what’s in the food, how many calories a food item contains, and how much sugar, sodium, fat, and carbohydrates you’re getting with each serving. Seems like handy information to have, right?

However, an expert panel of food and nutrition scientists, physicians, and epidemiologists may have a different opinion. The Department of Nutrition, Exercise, and Sports at the University of Copenhagen has released a report stating that foods shouldn’t be analyzed purely on an individual basis, according to the nutritional content written on the label. Instead, we should be evaluating foods as a whole, even based on the combination of other foods eaten at the same time.

Think about it: rarely do you eat anything on its own. Mac and cheese, burger and fries, yogurt and berries, cereal and milk—most foods are made up of individual ingredients. However, those individual ingredients are affected not only by the way you cook them but what you cook alongside with them and eat with them.

Take cheese as the perfect example. Based on nutritional content alone, it would be a no-no food thanks to its high saturated fat content. But when you examine the physiological effects of cheese, you’ll find there is a much lower effect on your cholesterol levels than expected for the fat content. Or how about almonds, a high-fat food that releases far less fat than expected during digestion?

This study is saying: “Yes, food labels tell you what’s in the food, but that’s not all that matters. You need to start examining your foods according to how you prepare them and what you serve/eat them with.”

This is a fascinating conclusion, as it means that we need to change the way we think about food. It can’t just be the sum of vitamins, minerals, fats, carbs, protein, and fiber written in neat little numbers on the food labels. We have to start approaching each food and meal we eat with the perspective of “How do all these ingredients combine effectively?”

Postdoc Tanja Kongerslev Thorning, PhD, from the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports at the University of Copenhagen, is first author of the report. Tanja explains that scientists have long wondered why the actual effects of a food are at variance with the effects expected on the basis of its nutrition content. They have therefore started to look at things in a wider context:

“Researchers have become more skilful over the years, and we have acquired more methods for exploring what specific nutrients mean for digestion and health,” Tanja continues “But when we eat, we do not consume individual nutrients. We eat the whole food. Either alone or together with other foods in a meal. It therefore seems obvious that we should assess food products in context.”

Ultimately this means that the composition of a food can alter the properties of the nutrients contained within it, in ways that cannot be predicted on the basis of an analysis of the individual nutrients. For example, dairy products such as cheese have a lesser effect on blood cholesterol than would be predicted on the basis of their content of saturated fat. There are interactions between the nutrients in a food that are significant for its overall effect on health.

Tanja Kongerslev Thorning explains further “Another example is almonds, which contain a lot of fat, but which release less fat than expected during digestion. Even when chewed really well. The effects on health of a food item are probably a combination of the relationship between its nutrients, and also of the methods used in its preparation or production. This means that some foods may be better for us, or less healthy, than is currently believed.”


1. Tanja Kongerslev Thorning, Hanne Christine Bertram, Jean-Philippe Bonjour, Lisette de Groot, Didier Dupont, Emma Feeney, Richard Ipsen, Jean Michel Lecerf, Alan Mackie, Michelle C McKinley, Marie-Caroline Michalski, Didier Rémond, Ulf Risérus, Sabita S Soedamah-Muthu, Tine Tholstrup, Connie Weaver, Arne Astrup, Ian Givens. “Whole dairy matrix or single nutrients in assessment of health effects: current evidence and knowledge gaps.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2017; 105 (5): 1033.