Find the Missing Ingredient
Food advertisements and labels bombard us with enticing slogans and attractive images, luring us into consuming the food. But have you ever wondered how nutritious the food is? Have you ever looked at a nutrition facts label and wondered what the columns of words and numbers meant? This activity will shed some light on the label. You will explore serving sizes and nutrients, and might find a discrepancy. Why would the sum of the nutrients not always add up to the total? Like a detective, you will gather the facts, brainstorm ideas and find evidence to support your proposed explanation. Can you crack the case?
Food laws and regulations have been around for centuries. Their initial goal was to deter mis-branding food, like mixture cheap corn syrup with nice honey, and selling it as pure honey. The mandatory US nutrition facts label as we know it today is a result of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). It informs consumers about what is in their food by listing serving size (the amount of food usually consumed at one time) and basic per-serving nutritional information, including Calorie (energy) content, essential vitamins and minerals, recommended daily amounts of these nutrients. All of this information can be used to make informed decisions when deciding what to eat.
Foods mainly consist of fat, carbohydrates, and protein. These are called macronutrients and provide us with energy.
- Fats can enhance flavor and texture. Health experts advise you to avoid saturated and trans-fats. That said, some fats, especially unsaturated fats, are an essential part of a healthy diet. As an example, they support healthy nerve and brain function.
- Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and dietary fiber in our food. Sugars and starches provide us with energy; fiber promotes healthy bowel function.
- Proteins are needed to build and repair the body. They are an essential part of a healthy diet, but consuming too much protein can damage the kidneys.
The other nutrients listed, like Vitamin A, iron, calcium, etc. are called micronutrients. While they are present in much smaller amounts, they still play an important role in a healthy diet. For easy reference, the labels show the percent daily value for most nutrients. This refers to the portion of the daily recommendations for this nutrient one serving provides.
- Nutrition facts label of a dry food item like bread, crackers, etc.
- Nutrition facts label of a nut butter or dairy butter
- Nutrition facts label of a moist food item like yogurt, (canned) fruit or vegetables, etc.
- Nutrition facts label of a water bottle
- Optional: random nutrition facts labels
- Optional: Calculator
- Look at the nutrition facts label of a dry food item, like bread or crackers. Can you find the mass of one serving of this food item (this will probably be measured in grams or ounces; one ounce is about 28 gram)?
- Skip the Calorie information and go straight to the list of macronutrients: ‘Total Fat’, ‘Total Carbohydrates’ and ‘Protein.’ These are the nutrients that make up the bulk of our food.
- Fats often enhance flavor and texture. Consuming them in limited amounts is essential for our wellbeing. Can you find the mass (in grams [g]) of fat one serving of this food contains?
- Jump to the total carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are mainly found in plant-based foods like grains, fruits, vegetables. Our body breaks these down into sugar that provides us energy, or into fiber that keeps our bowl healthy. Can you find the mass (in g) of carbohydrates in one serving of this food?
- Find the last macronutrient, protein. Your body needs protein to grow and repair essential parts like muscles, bone and blood. Can you find the mass (in g) of protein in one serving of this food?
- Check if it all adds up. If you add the masses of fat, carbohydrates, and protein in one serving, is this sum (almost) identical to the mass of one serving of this food? Why do you think this is the case?
- (Note: other nutrients like sodium (or salt) might be listed as well. Their mass per serving is usually expressed in milligram (mg). There are 1,000 milligrams in a gram, so although these nutrients are important for a healthy diet, they do not add much mass to a serving of food.)
- Look for a nutrition facts label of nut or dairy butter. Can you find the mass of one serving of butter?
- Next, look for the total masses of fat, carbohydrates and protein contained in a serving and add them up. Is the sum (almost) identical to the mass of one serving of this food?
- Look for a label of yogurt, (canned) fruit or vegetables and repeat previous step. Are you surprised about the result?
- Analyze a few more nutrition labels from different types of food. What do you notice? Does the sum of the masses of macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and protein) in a serving match up with the total mass of a serving in some cases and not in others? Why would that be?
- Group the foods where the sum is close. Do these food items have anything in common? Make a second group where the sum does not match. Do these food items have anything in common? Could there be something missing on the label that is absent in the first group but present in the second?
- Get into a detective mode. Can you see a pattern? Can you come up with an explanation for what you noticed? Which cases support your explanation? Can you think of other food items that, when analyzed, could provide evidence for or against your explanation?
- Look at the nutrition label of a water bottle. The serving size will probably be expressed in milliliters (mL) or ounces (oz). Can you analyze this label, knowing that one milliliter of water weighs one gram? How does the sum of the masses of macronutrients in a serving of water match up with the total mass of a serving of water? Does this support or refute your explanation?
Extra: Groups foods that provide a lot of fats, foods that provide a lot of carbohydrates, and foods that provide a lot of protein. Do some foods belong in two or even all three groups? Do some foods belong in none of these groups?
Extra: Rank your foods from smallest to largest serving size. Are you surprised about the variety in serving sizes?
Extra: Pick a food item you eat frequently and weigh out one serving as listed on the label. Is what you usually eat more, less or about the same as the serving size? Repeat for other food items. Do you observe a pattern in the mismatches in serving size and what you usually eat?
Extra: Nutrition facts labels list nutritional content per serving. Can you calculate nutritional content per 100 grams instead? For example, divide the amount of fats per serving (in g) by the serving size (in g). This will give you the amount of fats per gram of the food. Multiply this by 100 to get the amount per 100 g of food. Now rank your foods from highest to lowest fats per 100 grams. How does this ranking compare to ranking by fats per serving? Which ranking would be more useful for consumers who are looking for food high (or low) in fats? Repeat for carbohydrates and protein.
Observations and Results
Did you notice that for some food items, the sum of the masses of macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and protein) in a serving is very close to the mass of one serving, while for others it is not? This occurs because water has mass, but contains no macronutrients!
Although consuming enough water is essential for good health, it is not listed on the nutrition facts label. Thus, the water content of food influences the mass, but not the nutritional content, of food. Foods containing water will have servings that weigh more than the sum of the masses per serving of the three macronutrients. The mass discrepancies you observed informed you about the water content of the food items. The more water they contained, the bigger the discrepancy.
Listing nutritional content per serving allows consumers to compare different types of food at a glance, and identify which provides more of a nutrient per serving. Pay attention to serving sizes though! You might find that you usually consume way more or way less than the listed serving size, making these comparisons a little trickier.
Ask an Expert
- How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label, from U.S. Food & Drug Administration
- Kids Corner, from Nutrition.gov
- Burning Calories: How Much Energy is Stored in Different Types of Food?, from Science Buddies
- Science Activities for All Ages!, from Science Buddies