Whether someone has a family of five to support or is just a hungry college student, it’s common to have a shopping list to keep grocery store runs short and sweet. Similarly, all groceries on the shelves have their own list – sometimes just a quick glance or completely ignored – of nutritional value and ingredients.
Believe it or not, these food labels also have a bigger part in the nutritional science of the human body, according to registered nutritionist Tara LaRowe.
“The food label definitely has a connection to current science and is meant to be an educational tool for consumers,” LaRowe said. “[It] changes significantly based on scientific evidence.”
Although people can now see the ingredients and nutritional values of all foods, these numbers carry much more biological meaning than “just numbers” on the back of a box.
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Senior Elizabeth Tan, who studies food science, recognizes that calories are a little harder to understand beyond their numerical value. Because when people expend calories, they actually expend a kind of heat energy.
“That’s the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius,” Tan said. “It’s nothing physical – it’s the energy measurement.”
Beth Olson, UW associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, said that understanding food labels can be easy, even when there’s a lot of biochemistry behind everything.
Energy comes from the chemical bonds in the food that people consume. During mechanical processes like chewing and swallowing, enzymes react with food as it travels from the mouth to the gastrointestinal tract, stomach, and eventually the bloodstream, Olson and Tan said. Each macronutrient, such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, has its own calorie content and proper proportions in a diet for optimal body function.
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There are four calories in every gram of carbohydrates and protein — there are nine in fats, Olson said. Of those nutrients, 50-60% of our daily caloric intake should come from carbohydrates, 10-25% from protein, and 30-35% from fat, LaRowe said.
Aside from counting calories as energy, the body must break down these macronutrients in order for them to enter the circulatory system. Fat, for example, poses a challenge for the body to break down, Olson said, because they tend to form globules in the body, which the body then has to emulsify.
There are also different types of fats, each with different properties.
Saturated fats have a rigid chemical structure, making them harder for the body to process and should not be consumed in excess. Because there are no unsaturations in their chemical structure, these fats are solids at room temperature and are therefore more rigid and tough on the digestive tract, Olson said. Examples are animal fats from meat and butter. According to Tan, they can also contribute to the formation of plaque.
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Other fats, such as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, may have beneficial health effects and help prevent chronic disease, Olson said. These fats can come from oily fish like salmon and herring.
Much of the body’s inability to process rigid fats is due to the chemistry of fats, which don’t mix well with the body because they’re mostly water. That means water, tea and juices are easy to digest compared to solid foods and fats, Olson said.
That’s not to say that you should only consume liquids or foods high in water content like fruits and vegetables because they’re easily digested and lower in calories. According to Olson, these foods, while healthy, provide a lower energy density than solid and whole foods. The body has great need for a variety of solid foods in a diet and cannot survive on one nutrient alone, nor rely on itself to create nutrients.
“There are nutrients that we need to function. We can make some of these — these are non-essential nutrients,” Olson said. “Then there are essential nutrients, that is [we] cannot make them like some amino acids.”
Current nutritional studies attempt to confirm the body’s needs for a variety of foods, because as with many scientific disciplines, many mysteries remain. Some of these ingredients can also be beneficial, even if the body doesn’t have specific requirements for them, Olson said.
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It’s also possible for the body to change its biochemical food processes according to a particular diet.
“The microbiome — all the microbes in your gut — is affected by where you live, the people you live with, and your individual diet,” Tan said. “When you go vegan, you lose the microbes that are beneficial in digesting meat because they aren’t used and are outperformed by other plant-digesting microbes.”
Although it’s just a series of numbers and words on the surface of food packaging, there’s a significant amount of science going on inside the body. Taking the time to read and understand nutritional labels may not come naturally to some, but the body knows how to interpret what enters its digestive tract.