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Dissecting nutrition facts

Some joke around that people should come with labels -- not the politically incorrect ones, but the informational ones that could either warn of us of future behavior or confirm our intuition. While this may be a good idea, hopefully human personality labels would not be as complex as the current U.S. Nutritional Labels on food.

Most Americans have welcomed the change on the sides of packages, but as the labeling gets longer and more complex, will you need a degree in chemistry or nutrition to understand what's in the package?

Trans fat is the current bad boy in the food world and was added to the Nutritional labels in January 2006. But let's face it: until New York City banned them, not many people even knew about trans fats.

Trans fats -- which are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation -- were desired in food, or by manufacturers at least, since it increased the shelf life and "flavor stability." A trans fat is like a feckless person with narcissism. These are those people who look good and spend time on looking good, have a sense of self-importance and entitlement, are charming and often lead a puffed double life. They are commonly cheaters. Some believe that the "mouth feel" and attraction to fast food can be attributed to trans fats. But it's not so hard to want to avoid this kind of fat if you think about them as that person who may have great feel but will ultimately hurt your heart.

A saturated fat is the little brother to trans fats. While humans need fat in the diet and saturated fats occur naturally in such products as butter and cheese, the American Heart Association warns that saturated fat is the main dietary cause of high cholesterol. The AHA recommends that a person consuming 2,000 calories each day should consume less than 14 grams of saturated fat and less than 2 grams trans fat.

So if you're looking at the label and it says 1 gram of trans fat per serving, is this OK? You need to check out the serving size and then you need to think about the serving size listed. After all do two people split a bottle of coke or are seven chips a serving size? The serving size on a package of Ramen noodles is "2". Did you plan inviting someone over?

What makes the serving size multifaceted is the multiplication. For example, Ghirardelli chocolate syrup brownie mix states it makes 16 servings, or a two-inch-square portion size. Right. Try selling that at a bake sale. So you're left with multiplying each of the constituent parts of the nutritional label by multiples of two or three to determine the true nutritional facts.

Sugar has become another item of concern. While sugar appears on the panel, move down to the ingredients list, which is listed in order of prominence, to see what kind of sugar. Sugars may appear in various forms: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose (malt sugar), dextrose (corn sugar and grape sugar), sucrose, honey, and maple syrup.

The one to focus on, though, is high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. This sugar came into use and into our mouths during the 1980's. The Japanese created this sugar, unusually a combination of 55 percent fructose and 45 percent sucrose, a decade before by pulling sugar from cornstarch. Since HFCS was cheaper than cane sugar, could be imported into the United States, and had a longer shelf life, manufacturers jumped to use this product. By 1984 soft drink companies had switched to from cane sugar to HFCS, although today a few like Jones Company sodas have become known for their use of cane sugar and not HFCS.

Today HFCS can be found in baked goods, jelly, syrups, even ketchup. Is this a harmful sugar? Some researchers and nutritionists say this sugar acts the same way in our bodies as sugar and the problem in American diets is too much of any of the refined sugars. Others have pointed out that HFCS is metabolized differently and doesn't activate the hormones that regulate weight. In either case HFCS is listed on the product labels so consumers can decide.

Towards the end of the ingredient list are chemicals such as potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. Both of these are preservatives.

Of course many foods are devoid of nutritional labels. These are the "conventional foods" such as raw produce: fruits and vegetables. As of now, nutritional labeling is voluntary. But these foods are in the category of what you see is what you get. Plump and moist indicates a fruit ready to eat and the key factors in deciding which fruit to select should be via the olfactory and visual senses and not a degree or understanding of nutrition or chemistry. In fact, it doesn't have to look good at all. These label-less conventional foods are like those rare friends and lovers that come along without pretense and puffery. One word of caution, don't take too long to recognize their qualities because their lives are real and ephemeral.

Eater's Digest

Ted Fadel, owner and vice president of Fadel's Food Service Equipment and Supply died Tuesday, Feb. 6. His passing will have an impact on much of the Charlotte hospitality industry since he and his family became more than just suppliers of kitchen equipment. Ted was a friend and mentor to many restaurateurs and was encouraging, kind, and generous with his affection and knowledge. Our sympathies go to the Fadel family.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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