On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Nutrition Facts Labels Generally Reliable

DEAR DR. BLONZ: You often make reference to the “Nutrition Facts” label on packaged foods. Who in the government comes up with the data, and are all foods tested? How reliable are these figures? Why is it that some foods do not have this panel? -- C.C. Walnut Creek, California

DEAR C.C.: All foods regulated by the FDA need to display nutrition labeling. Some exceptions: small businesses with fewer than 100 full-time equivalent employees, with food product sales less than 100,000 units per year (or, for importers, fewer than 10 full-time equivalent employees and sales under 10,000 units annually). Retailers are also exempt if their annual gross sales are less than $500,000, or their gross sales of foods to consumers in the U.S. are less than $50,000.

Many companies not required to display the labels will often do so anyway, because they realize that it is a valuable source of information for consumers.

The accuracy of the information on the Nutrition Facts label is the responsibility of the company selling the food, not the government. Any information on the food label is subject to review, and the FDA goes around sampling, purchasing and analyzing products from store shelves to check for accuracy. The extent and frequency of these checks, of course, depend on the department’s budget.

The FDA allows for a 20 percent margin of error. In 1996, it found that 91 percent of tests on sample food products correctly listed nutrition information. If any infractions are found, fines and product seizures can result, depending on the severity. Food companies, especially larger ones, have a lot to lose from inaccurate labels -- the penalties can be hefty. I consider the information on food labels to be reliable and useful when comparing similar food products.

There are now extensive resources online related to food composition. A searchable database of food composition, amassed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can be found at ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/. There is also a user-friendly website at nutritiondata.self.com. The site contains food composition data, along with nutritional information for fast-food entrees and a wide variety of diet, nutrition and health tools including a way to find and analyze recipes.

DEAR DR. BLONZ: What do you think of putting desiccant from medicine bottles into a cookie jar to help maintain the cookies’ freshness? -- P.P., via email

DEAR P.P.: It’s a bit at cross-purposes. With medicines, you want to prevent moisture from having a negative effect on the medication. Desiccant packets attract and absorb moisture before it can affect the meds. Dryness is a positive, in other words. But with baked goods, especially cookies, dryness is the negative. You want to maintain a level of moisture consistent with their freshness.

With the medical desiccant packets, there’s also the risk of residual medicinal substances and odors being transferred to the treats. There is also a limited capacity of those small desiccant packs, as only a small amount is needed for already-dry medications.

A check of baker blogs will reveal a number of better methods to retain the freshness of cookies and other baked goods. Check out goo.gl/rBsPuF.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.