A grocery store owner lived on food past its expiration date for a year, The Washington Post reported. Some say his continued health disproves the need for expiration dates entirely. However, food labels contain important and little-known information for your health and safety.
According to the The Washington Post article, MOM’s Organic Market owner Scott Nash made expired foods his primary diet for a full year and lived. His nutritional choices—which included yogurt that was several months past due—may make some readers shudder, but Nash intended to make people question the strictness to which we adhere to expiration date labels. While his findings may have converted some people, food labels still contain serious and even surprising information for your personal health.
Serving Sizes and Percent Daily Values
Food nutritional labels start simply enough by listing the recommended serving size of a particular food and the amount of calories per serving. After that, things get more complicated. “Just below where the total calories are listed, you’ll start to see a list of all the nutrients provided per serving including total fat and the types of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars, and lastly protein,” said Dr. Michael Ormsbee, Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. “All these values are given in grams and also in a percent daily value.”
The percent daily value of each nutrient is based on a 2000-calorie-per-day diet, which Dr. Ormsbee said is an average diet for an average-sized person to maintain their current weight. Of course, most people don’t maintain a strict diet of 2,000 calories per day. “The percent daily values might be useful for some people, but are really most valuable in pointing out red flags—when certain nutrients are extremely high or when certain nutrients are extremely low, or non-existent,” he said.
Vitamins and minerals are shown near the bottom of the nutritional labels, which reveals the secrets of the nutrient density of the food. This is where one valuable piece of advice comes in. “You should choose higher values of these nutrients compared with a lower calorie amount on the label,” Dr. Ormsbee said. It may sound simple, but regularly comparing the value of vitamins and minerals against the calories in a serving of food can become a very healthy habit.
Deciphering the Ingredients List
Getting away from the numbers and nutrients, most nutritional labels feature a list of ingredients from which the food is made. These ingredients are listed in descending order of the amount of the ingredient in each serving. In other words, the higher up an ingredient is on the list, the more of it there is per serving. Another valuable food tip can be found in this list.
“You want to see more natural or unprocessed ingredients towards the beginning of the list,” Dr. Ormsbee said. “I think it’s a good idea to choose foods with as few ingredients as possible in order to have a better idea of how processed the food is that you’re eating. But today, almost everything is processed to some degree—this is usually for food safety—so choose foods that are minimally processed, as you can.”
It goes without saying that nutritional labels can help identify any ingredients that could trigger a food allergy in the person eating the food. Recently, labels have even begun to clarify if the food was processed using the same equipment that has processed popular food allergens that aren’t in the food you’re buying.
Scott Nash may have inspired some home cooks to fear expiration dates a bit less, but once you’ve deciphered the nutritional labels on a packaged food, it’s easy to understand the importance of knowing which ingredients are in your food and in which quantities.
Dr. Michael Ormsbee contributed to this article. Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his B.S. in Exercise Science from Skidmore College, his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University, and his Ph.D. in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.