Key ingredients

Reading the nutrition label on your favorite packaged food could be enough to make you lose your appetite.

January 21, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

This pizza wants you. The box shows one slice of DiGiorno Cheese Stuffed Crust pizza magically rising from the pie - gooey mozzarella tendrils, golden crust and red pepperoni offering themselves in a shameless seductive dance.

That's one way to read this frozen-pizza package. Consider also the side panel, where you find what George Orwell might have called "uncomfortable facts" possibly bearing on your health, to say nothing of your pants size. When better than this post-holiday season to hunker down with an engrossing nutrition label?

If the very prospect dims your appetite, there's half the battle. It is a new year, after all, a time for the inevitable weight-loss resolutions. Perhaps the moment demands the sober tone of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's "Nutrition Facts" label.

"It's a good tool" for reckoning how a serving of food fits into the bigger picture of your daily diet, says dietitian Nelda Mercer of Ann Arbor, Mich., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Mercer won't say the label is perfect. Nor would she say that all you need to know about food and health is contained right there in the little Nutrition Facts box that since 1994 has appeared on nearly all American food packages bigger than a Hershey's Kiss. Consider it instead one staple in a diet of nutrition information, of which there exists at the very least a cornucopia.

Susan Borra, senior vice president of the International Food Information Council Foundation, acknowledges as much. "We are in an information overload about nutrition," says Borra.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. As with a healthy food regimen, the trick is balance: a few nutrition articles, perhaps, a Web search or three, maybe a radio show on dieting, and your omnipresent box of nutrition facts.

That DiGiorno pepperoni pizza pie, the one with the oozing crust, for instance, weighs nearly 2 pounds. For purposes of the nutrition label, the pie splits into six slices of about 5 ounces apiece, each considered a serving in trade parlance.

Each serving delivers a substantial nutrient load: 390 calories, 170 of which come from fat. Consider the fat totals: 19 grams, or 29 percent of the daily recommended total fat allotment in a 2,000-calorie diet, and 45 percent of the recommended daily amount of saturated fat. That would be a kind of fat that has been closely associated with raising undesirable cholesterol and, hence, greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Now prepare for the sodium hit: 1,140 milligrams, or 48 percent of the daily allowance.

This is to say that one slice of this pizza has more calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium than one 9-ounce Healthy Choice meal of Rigatoni With Broccoli and Chicken. That frozen meal delivers 270 calories, 70 of which come from fat. Total fat: 7 grams, including a mere 13 percent of the daily saturated-fat allotment.

What to do? Such decisions are nothing if not contingent.

Because holiday season finds America transformed into a giant cruise ship minus ocean view but with nonstop eating, certain questions arise. How many holiday open-house events did you attend? How many plates of lasagna did you actually consume? To what degree did your personal holiday eating experience resemble a bus tour unleashed on a Vegas buffet?

All this might matter.

Even dietitian Susan Moores of St. Paul, Minn., won't necessarily say it's a bad thing to have, for instance, the Sara Lee Frozen Classic French Cheesecake. The Nutrition Facts label reveals the sheer horror/delight of one 4.75-ounce slice: 410 calories, 230 of which come from fat, with 25 grams of total fat, including 80 percent of the daily allotment of saturated fat.

And yet, Moores says, "It's difficult to say that the cheesecake is not good."

Taken by itself and utterly out of context, this statement liberates. Alas, Moores goes on: "It depends on what happens" in the rest of the day's eating.

Perhaps you otherwise subsisted on celery sticks and a few belts at the local oxygen bar. Good for you. Proceed to cheesecake.

Perhaps instead you defrosted and ate a Stouffers Swedish Meatballs dinner, which in one serving delivers 510 calories, 230 from fat, 39 percent of the recommended daily allowance of total fat and 47 percent of saturated fat.

In that case, you're looking at a 47 percent saturated fat hit plus an 80 percent shot from that one cheesecake serving, which comes to precisely too much. Contingent, of course, on myriad other factors: exercise, general health and, perhaps most significant, heredity.

The Nutrition Facts box was designed to inform such calculations. The reckoning unfolds in the light - or would it be the shadow? - of potential consequences. One estimate published by a nutrition researcher early last year put the number of U.S. deaths linked in some way to poor diet at more than 300,000 a year.

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