By: Shanyn Olpin

Let’s face it, if you were selling a product that has 2% fat when you measure it one way, but 40% fat if you measure it another, you’d want the packaging to read that there was only 2% fat in your product. That is how it goes in the food industry. But that kind of advertising is misleading to consumers.

If you care about what you eat, and you want to be a savvy consumer, you are going to have to learn not only to READ packages and labels, but how to FIGURE THEM OUT. Don't let this cause you chronic anxiety! As far as fats go, here is the skinny on figuring out how much of it is actually in your food.

Let’s say you pick up a package of hamburger. It says 85% fat free. Wow, you think, this is only 15% fat. That is low fat and good for my family. What a great buy.

Hold on! That amount is dreadfully misleading because it is the amount of fat “BY WEIGHT,” not by calories. [pullquote align="right"]The advertiser is telling you that 15% of the weight of that meat is fat, not the percentage of calories from fat. Big Difference![/pullquote]

Remember fat doesn’t weigh very much at all, (that's why it floats) but it is packed with calories. Protein on the other hand is very heavy but it contains less than half of the calories fat does. Fat has 9 calories per gram, and protein has only 4 calories per gram.

If you take that package of so called “85% fat free” meat and gaze at the nutrition information on the label, you will find a much different message.

Look at the label and find the number of total calories and the number of total fat calories. These are listed per serving. On the label I am looking at right now, it says 190 total calories and 100 fat calories. That alone tells you something. There are 100 fat calories per serving in this “85% fat free” meat!

Take the fat calories and divide it by the total calories or 100/190. You will find the real percentage of fat in that hamburger. In this case it is .526315789 or almost 53% fat! Now it doesn’t seem like such a bargain. In other words, 53% of what you are eating is animal lard.  (Quite a different story than 85% fat free).

Let’s try it again. I am looking at another label that says “71% lean” on the top of the hamburger package. But when I look at the nutrition facts I find that is has 250 calories per serving and 170 total fat calories. That is a lot of calories and here is why.

By dividing the total fat calories by the total calories, 170/250 I get .68. That means 68% of this meat is fat! Imagine dividing the hamburger up into 10 pieces. Almost seven of those pieces would be just plain fat!

It gets worse with those big, inexpensive “family packs” of hamburger. Ever wonder why the meat is so much lighter in color and less expensive? Some of those packs can be up to 90% fat! Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like something you want to feed your family.

It is true that when we cook it, most of us drain off some of that saturated fat, (although many restaurants don’t), and so we don’t really eat all of It. But we usually don’t drain 53%, or 68%, or 90%, of what we cook, so we still end up eating quite a bit of fat. This is why it is important to realize that the labels are misleading unless you know how to figure them out.

Another label I am looking at says this hamburger has 4% fat (we know that is by weight) so when I do the calculations, it really comes out to 29% fat calories. It is still almost one third fat per serving.

Milk labels read the same way. You may have wondered if there was a big difference between 2% and 1% and skim milk.

Well, that 2% fat on the milk label means 2% of the weight of that product is fat. Milk is mostly water and so fat is a small percentage of the weight of milk. Water weighs a lot, but doesn’t have any calories, so the calories you are getting are from protein, carbohydrates and fat. When you look at the actual label and calculate the actual fat calories, it comes out closer to 40%, depending on the cow that gave the milk. That means 40% of the calories in that glass of 2% milk are fat calories.

In 1% milk, it is closer to 20% of the calories that come from fat. (Again, it depends on the cow.) For skim milk, there are no fat calories at all, just calories from carbohydrates and protein.

This may seem confusing at first, but it is well worth the effort to do some calculations in the supermarket. Figuring out the real percentage of fat in the food will help you make better food choices. You can easily get less fat in your diet without changing it drastically. Just choose foods based on what you know, rather than what the advertisers tell you.