This is a guest post by Carol Harvey, Director of food/nutrition labeling and product development at Palate Works.
Why would a food company show less of a beneficial nutrient than a product contains? For the same reason they might overstate one – poor knowledge of nutrition and/or lack of oversight.
While vitamin C is one of the most frequently overstated beneficial nutrients on food labels, vitamin A is one of the most under-reported. Ironically, data errors for vitamin A from plant sources are also the easiest to spot.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin found in animal foods (milk, egg yolk, liver, etc.), but it is also produced in the small intestine from pro-vitamin A compounds, namely certain carotenoids in plant foods (carrots, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, orange squash, mangoes, cantaloupe, etc.). Carotenoids give these foods their orange/yellow color, although green pigments from chlorophyll will overpower them, which is why leafy greens, broccoli, etc. don’t look orange, even though they contain carotenoids.
Because of the orange color, it is fairly easy to determine which foods are likely to be a good or excellent source of vitamin A. Here are some that should be, but state otherwise…
Trader Joe’s Vegetable Root Chips:
The first two ingredients in this chip mix are sweet potato, but the label shows only 2% DV for vitamin A. Every other chip out there with this much sweet potato shows at least 50% DV. Sweet potato is one of the best sources of pro-vitamin A.
DrinkMe Green3 Smoothie:
This smoothie contains “a full head of kale paired with orange,” but the bottle shows only 8% DV for vitamin A. That’s how much comes from a cup of orange juice; they left out the amount from kale, which contains much more vitamin A than oranges.
If they are using 3 cups of chopped kale (about half a bunch), there would be 20,000 IU of vitamin A coming from the kale = 400% DV! Both of their “Green” smoothies significantly understate vitamin A content.
L&A Papaya Delight:
The first ingredient in this juice blend is papaya puree, which is a great source of vitamin A. The label shows less than 2% DV for vitamin A (“not a significant source”), but 80% DV for vitamin C.
Ooops… they flipped the data for vitamin C and vitamin A. There is most likely 80% DV for A and zero for C (fresh papaya has both, but the C is mostly destroyed in processing, whereas the vitamin A is mostly retained), unless vitamin C has been added… and not reported.
SmartJuice Apricot Peach Juice:
Here’s another juice blend containing as the first ingredient a puree from a fruit that’s high in vitamin A, but showing negligible amounts on the label. The web site even states that apricots are “an excellent source of vitamin A,” so the product should reflect that. Once again, it appears the vitamin A and C data have been flipped: Vitamin A is reported as “1.4 % DV” (incorrectly rounded, by the way… can’t use a decimal place (same for the sodium), and if something is under 2% it should be shown as 0); vitamin C is shown as 65% DV.
Unless vitamin C is added (the product claims nothing is added), there will be very little (and probably no) vitamin C left after bottling the juice.
Del Monte Diced Mangoes in Light Syrup:
The first ingredient is mango, which is another great source of vitamin A (again, look at that beautiful orange color), but only 4% DV is showing on the label.
This is uncharacteristically sloppy for a large food company. They have another product, almost identical, but in a slightly larger container (with apparently more water), that does show significant – and most likely correct – vitamin A at 15% DV:
But instead of making an allowed claim for “good source of vitamin A”, they choose to show “excellent source of vitamin C,” most of which has been added, rather than coming from the fruit naturally, as the vitamin A does.
Moral of story: Don’t always assume a food label is exaggerating nutritional benefits. Sloppiness and ignorance can go both ways.
Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.