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How accurate is the nutrition information in your recipes?
Thanks very much for your question. I use a feature of The Dr. Gourmet Diet Plan, My Recipe Box, that utilizes the USDA database. (We have also used an excellent offering from nutritiondata.com.)

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One of the reasons that I started writing about food was because there wasn't much information available. At the time the government didn't require that manufacturers list nutrition information on their packages, but with all this extra information it helps if you know how to use the Nutrition Facts box.

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One of the reasons I started the DrGourmet.com web site is because the amount of nutrition information available to people these days is just staggering. Governments issue complicated guidelines and tax or otherwise limit some foods (but not others). Newspapers report on nutrition research. Television shows tout the latest pseudo-science. Magazines write about celebrity diets. I just wanted to help you, my readers, to cut through the hype....


 

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How to Eat Healthy: Read Nutrition Information



A group of young adults in a dining hall

I'm sure you've seen it on the news: the drive for nutrition labeling on the menus at fast food restaurants. Proponents say that having the nutrition labeling - or at least the caloric and fat content listed on the menu - will help people make better choices when they eat at a fast food restaurant. (Of course, I'd rather see people not eating at fast food restaurants at all.) Posting the information on the menu board - or on the restaurant's website, for that matter, is all very well, but the question is, "Does anyone actually read it or use that information to make better choices?"

The University of Nebraska has nutrition information listed for many of the foods at four of their six dining halls. The information is posted in front of the food in question and lists some of the information on a typical nutrition label, including calories, fat (but not saturated fat or trans-fats), protein, vitamins, ingredients, and whether the food is suitable for a vegetarian diet. It doesn't list dietary fiber or the amount of sugars, however.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska decided to find out just how much their students used the nutrition information (J Am Diet Assoc 2008;108:2071-2076). They recruited students by setting up tables outside the four dining halls and asking passing students to volunteer. (As compensation for their time, the participating students were given certificates for free ice cream cones. Did the certificates include the nutrition information of the ice cream?)

The participants filled out a 15-question survey which asked for their demographic information, how often they ate in the dining halls, whether they used the nutrition information posted, their reasons for using or not using it, and whether they would use such information if it were available to them through the University's website.

Over 200 students filled out the survey: 114 men and 91 women, which was roughly proportionate to the number of men vs. women in the university as a whole. Almost 60% of the students said that they did use the nutrition information, but more of those were women then men: 79% of the students who said they used the information were women. Further, many more women than men said that they would like to have nutrition information available to them online.

When asked why they did or did not use the nutrition information to inform their food choices, the top three most frequently selected reasons to use the information were: general knowledge, concern about overall health, and calorie counting. And for those who did not use the information, the top two answers were "will not change my mind about food items I select," and not enough time to use the information.

What this means for you

One of the most important things you can do in your quest to eat healthy is to read the nutrition information that is available to you, whether it's on the side of a box in the grocery store or listed on the menu board at your local fast food joint. If you have kids in college, ask them if their dining hall posts this information, and if it doesn't, urge your child's school to make that information available. It's easier to eat healthy when you know what you're eating.

First posted: March 18, 2009