Friday, May 21, 2010

Variety Friday: Reading labels 1 - nutrition information

I often try to note the nutrition information on labels before buying snacks in Japan and to offer some of that data in my reviews. That being said, sometimes, I'm in a big hurry and only check them closely after the fact. Since most of my readers are in the United States or other foreign countries, I thought it would be useful to offer a translation table for visitors or newcomers who can't read labels themselves.

The purpose of this post, and those to follow in this series, is to allow my readers to pull up these tables or print them out and to compare what is written here to what they see on an actual label when they buy food on their own. It is my hope that this will be particularly useful to people who may buy Japanese snacks through import services that don't offer translations.

The first in this series is nutrition information and I have attempted to hit all of the major areas. However, if I missed something, let me know and I'll try to incorporate that information and post an updated table. Future posts in this series will be on ingredients and allergens. Note that I wanted to offer this in a different graphics format, but Blogger wouldn't accept them or Adobe InDesign (in which I created the table) couldn't export to other formats.

Sometimes the Japanese labels (or web sites) only include information on "sodium", but sometimes they list separately for "salt equivalence". It's my guess that this is their attempt to tell you how much table salt the sodium is equal to. Also, the nutritional concerns in Japan aren't quite the same as those back home. I cannot recall ever seeing any reference or talk about "trans fats", and rarely see information which distinguishes between saturated fats and other types. It could be that, as someone who deals with snacks and not health food, this sort of data is deemed unnecessary for the foods I look at the labels on, but I think the Japanese in general tend to get less worked up about the types of fats they consume than about things like dyes or artificial coloring.

While the absence of certain types of data is telling, so is the presence of other types. Women in Japan are obsessed with their skin and products that contain collagen mention it loudly and proudly because it is supposed to promote skin elasticity. I'm not sure if collagen is nearly as important a selling point in other countries and probably wouldn't be listed as often as it is on nutrition labels in Japan. Polyphenols, which are antioxidants, are also all the rage now and I'm seeing them listed on more products.

It is important to note that the nutritive benefits are often listed in a misleading fashion on Japanese products. There will be huge banners across a package asserting that you will be getting large amounts of a particular nutrient, but that number applies to the entire package, not to an individual serving. Most notably, I have found that hard candies with fortified nutrients give values for the whole bag rather than each candy, though by no means are hard candy makers the only ones who do this.

Calorie information is often (but not always) listed in a misleading way on products as well. It is not uncommon for drink makers to list the calorie data "per 100 ml." for a 500 ml. bottle. It is very easy if you aren't paying attention to buy a bottle of something which says "32 kcal" on it and think that is for the whole thing when the reality is that it is 160 calories. Also, many snacks list their calorie information per 100 grams (3.5 oz.), even when the package is more than 100 grams. I find myself having to do a fair bit of math to get calorie counts per serving as a result of this. If a bag says 354 calories per 100 grams, and the whole package is 180 grams with 22 pieces in it,  I'm breaking out the calculator to reach the conclusion that there are 29 calories per piece.

This manner in which calorie information is offered can be quite troublesome and I believe is intentionally misleading or confusing to make people who don't pay attention think more positively about the products. I wish it were required that all snack makers provide data on calories per piece or actual serving. Who drinks 1/5 of a bottled drink as a "serving" or 100 grams of a bag of cookies or salted snack? At any rate, the lack of a consistent method of listing calorie information makes the whole process of determining how much you're eating a little trickier so I would encourage careful scrutiny of the information if you're concerned about such things.

Though I do look at some of the nutrition information on snacks, it isn't of paramount importance to me. I deal in junk food, after all. The only information I pay serious attention to is the calories because I try not to exceed 200 calories per day for such types of food. While it is nice if something is a bit more nutritious, I'm not fooling myself about what I'm getting out of the foods. What I'm mainly getting is pleasure. Anything else is a bonus.


Unknown said...

Excellent post! I've been trying to de-mistify many of these kanji for some time now. Thank you! :)

Helen said...

Oh I wish I'd had your chart a few years ago when I was low-carbing. It would have made my life so much easier.

It is helpful though, as it is hard for my DH to translate some of the things into English that I understand. Occasionally he'll start getting into chemistry formulas to explain, but my eyes tend to glaze over at that!

Orchid64 said...

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it, and I do hope you find this information useful!

Have a great weekend!

Judith said...

I think it's funny that you think it misleading that information is posted for 100grams or ml. I think exactly the opposite.

In Europe everything is always stated for 100 grams so it is easier to compare products to each other and see which one is really healthier or not. Whenever I see packages that state the amount per serving I feel that they cheat and try to sound healthier because the portions are usually smaller and it sounds like it contains less of whatever.

I guess it's a cultural thing. Whichever one you grow up with is the one you prefer.

Orchid64 said...

I think it's the inconsistency that gets old really fast. Sometimes it's one way, sometimes it's another. Often, it's calories per entire bag of something.

I can't say that I'm comfortable with "the way I grew up with" since I'm 45 and when I grew up, nutritional information was only sporadically listed on products at all. In essence, I'm not "used to" anything because I'm too old! ;-)

This is a personal preference for nutritional information to be offered in what would seem to be the most useful fashion - that is, "per serving" and with serving being represented at least somewhat realistically based on the type of food. For instance, if you're buying a bag of 22 individually wrapped rice crackers, I want the serving per cracker. If it's a bag of 10 packets with 2 cookies in each, I want the information per packer (per 2 cookies). I simply don't see the point in giving the calories per 100 grams when no one is going to consume 100 grams. It doesn't tell you what you need to know about the product as it is presented for consumption. I'm good with the small serving sizes (in fact, generally that's all I need - perhaps a byproduct of living in Japan so long is that 1 tiny cookie is fine with me).

I realize this is just my feeling, but at least you have a consistent method in Europe. I wouldn't blame them if they were all consistent, but they so very much are not.

Thanks for commenting and reading!

Unknown said...

Yes I noticed this as well, some products list "servings" as 100g or as the entire package or as one individual piece. They think they are so picky but after being a dieter for 2 years I am a pro at reading food labels haha. But the calculate idea sounds very useful^^