Getting the most out of nutrition stats.

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I love to eat and I love to cook, but when I’m not in my kitchen cooking up a storm, I’m sitting at my desk running nutrition stats.

My clients are editors for website recipe collections and cookbooks. The preferred format is a listing of nutrients per serving which roughly match the Nutrition Facts Label.

Like my colleagues who work in the consumer packaged goods industry, I’m dedicated to providing the most accurate analysis possible given the vagrancies of ingredient data sourcing and the lack of clarity in certain ingredient listings.

I’d like to believe cooks, recipe developers, and consumers pay as much attention to the stats I produce as I pay to accuracy. But I have my doubts.

The label as currently formatted is hard to understand even for me and I’m an expert. The data is good but the format is dense and unfriendly. As one perceptive observer has said, the current label is still a work in progress.

The current nutrition stats approach sends a message that healthy can be reduced to a couple of nutrients. That is not a helpful message. However, nutrients remain important and the stats work well to size a portion or to calculate a ratio.

Research on new formats in this country and elsewhere is ongoing and it’s likely we will see a more intuitive, interpretive, or holistic format at some point in the future. But for now we need to use what we’ve got, so let me share with you some observations.

CHECK CALORIES FOR PORTION SIZE

Rigid calorie counting is out, but portion sizing is always useful for individuals. I know for example that a 600 calorie plate is plenty for me. I do enjoy meals over 1000 calories from time to time. Sometimes a lot over but I need a good reason. Like a celebration meal or dinner out at one of our favorite Manhattan restaurants.

Calories are my metric of choice for portion sizing. Very useful when scanning a restaurant menu or for assessing portions for a new recipe.

CHECK RATIOS FOR NUTRIENTS

Ratios are a quick and easy way to compare two nutrients. And because a ratio is not dependent on a serving size, a ratio remains constant regardless of how much or how little ends up on the plate.

• Calorie Density. The calorie to gram ratio tells you how many calories per unit of weight. Cookies have a high calorie density where as a mixed greens salad olive oil & vinegar dressing has a low calorie density.

• Salt. The ratio of sodium to calories is an easy way to determine sodium concentration. This ratio is especially useful when you check out a packaged product or a restaurant menu item. Canned soups have a high sodium ratio. My homemade legume soup has a lower sodium ratio.

• Fiber. The fiber to carbohydrate ratio helps you figure out if a product or a menu item is a good source of fiber. 100% whole wheat bread has a high ratio for fiber. Pop Tarts have a low ratio.

• Healthy Fats. The fatty acid ratio tells you which fatty acids predominate. Unsaturated fat is considered healthy but the status of saturated fat remains controversial. I prefer whole milk to skim milk and always choose whole milk yogurt and cheese. Many nutrition researchers and dietitians recommend limiting saturated fats as do the current dietary guidelines, but I continue to opt for a good honest cheese like the St André pictured above.

AN INTERPRETIVE LABEL

The next generation of nutrition labels will be more personalized and more intuitive. We will probably see more color coding and more logos. This type of labeling is already being used in some European and South American countries.

In the meantime, nutrient ratios, calories per serving, and lots of good old fashioned common sense are out best option.