Are You Smarter Than an FDA Label?

July 26, 2022

An encounter with a surprisingly hard quiz on the Nutrition Facts panel.

I’m a sucker for internet quizzes. So when the FDA offered to test my knowledge about the new Nutrition Facts label, how could I say no?

I am referring, of course, to the nutritional data that has been mandated to appear on most packaged food and beverage products since the early 1990s. It was tweaked a few years ago with refinements like added sugar as a separate category, an improved definition of fiber and increases in serving sizes.

The FDA now has an interactive online quiz on the new label and its tweaks. Feeling confident – after all, I cover the food industry for a living – I embarked.

Question 1: How many calories are in a recommended daily diet: 1,000, 1,200, 1,500 or 2,000?

That’s easy: gotta be 1,500. Whoops, no, it’s 2,000. Whiff.

OK, on to Question 2: If you ate this entire bag of pretzels, how many calories would you be eating? It’s illustrated with a Nutrition Facts panel that clearly shows “Per Serving, 110; Per Container, 330.” A gimme.

Question 3 is a toughie. What are the respective number of calories in a gram of protein, carbohydrate and fat? The choices are 4/4/9, 9/4/4 or 4/9/4. In other words, which of the three is more densely caloric?

I choose carbs, since they’re the dietary villain du jour. Nope, it’s fat. So I’m one for three so far, and the one was an easy target.

On to Question 4, which asks you to pick the five nutrients that most Americans need more of, from a list that includes: total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. This one’s not as tough as it first looks, once you eliminate the negative choices like fat and sodium. That leaves fiber, vitamin D, calcium, protein, potassium and iron. One of them has to go. Which one?

I take out protein, despite the efforts of some in the industry to convince us that we’re not eating enough of it. And I’m right.

Question 5: “Sugar alcohols are...”

The choices are: “Found naturally in small amounts in a variety of fruits and vegetables”; “commercially produced and found in many sugar-free and reduced-sugar products, such as [list]”; or “all of the above.” Hmmm. I’m an operations guy as opposed to a formulations one, but the second choice looks pretty long and elaborate to be a fake-out. So I’m going to go with “all of the above.” And I’m right again!

Question 6: “True or False: % Daily Value can help you compare foods and make dietary trade-offs with other foods throughout the day.” Finally, a duh question.

Question 7 is even dumber: You see three panels that clearly have calorie counts stated in large type and have to pick the one with the lowest number. Just don’t do like I did and accidentally click on the wrong one.

Question 8 is a variation on No. 4: Which three nutrients do Americans need less of? Choices: Total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbs, fiber, total sugars, added sugars, protein and potassium. This one is tougher. Once the three obviously positive nutrients are eliminated, you still have to choose three of eight. Total fat or saturated? Carbs? Total or added sugars?

I went with saturated fat, sodium and added sugars, the latter the result of one of the new tweaks to the panel. Success! (Or blind luck.)

On to No. 9: “5% Daily Value or less of a nutrient per serving is considered _______. 20% Daily Value or more is considered _________.” The choices are average/high, low/average or average/high.

Well, I always think I’m being virtuous if whatever I’m about to eat has less than 5% DV of something bad, so I went with “low/high.” Right again!

Last question: Which five foods are dietary cholesterol found in? The ten choices include five animal products and five from plants. Even I know that cholesterol comes from animals.

So an industry pro (or at least, someone who writes about industry pros) went only seven for 10. (It would have been 8 of 10 if I hadn’t been careless with my mouse. Just sayin’.)

Take the test yourself. I haven’t given it all away; there are other questions, and they seem to come up in random order. You might learn something, as I did.

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