Red-Flagging Food Labels: 8 Tips to Sift Fact From Fiction

Surveys say most of us take advantage of the information on food labels. That’s the good news. The bad news is that making sense of it all is more complicated than you might think. It requires mental math skills, the ability to translate scientific jargon and the willingness to cut through a maze of marketing hype.

Here’s what you need to know:

Top 5 Facts to Look For on a Label

Serving Size?You?ll find this on the Nutrition Facts label right below the heading. Despite government’s good intentions, serving sizes are far from standard, particularly for cereals and snack foods. If you typically eat much more or much less than the amount listed, you?ll need to do some quick math. For example, if the serving size is five crackers, but you usually eat 10, you?ll need to double all of the Nutrition Facts numbers. And don’t assume a small package equals one serving. For example, the label on a typical 12-ounce can of soda lists Servings Per Container as 1?.

Saturated Fat and Trans Fat?While total fat content is important, saturated and trans fats are the real culprits that clog arteries. If a food is high in fat, it can be redeemed by low levels of these fats. Try to buy foods with less than two grams of saturated fat and zero grams of trans fats per serving. The goal is to limit saturated fats to less than 7% of calories (about 15 grams per 2,000 calories), while limiting trans fats to less than 1% of calories (2 grams per 2,000 calories).

Fiber?Always opt for the higher fiber choices. Most of us fall far short of the recommended fiber intake of about 25 grams a day. Ideally, look for foods that provide at least two grams per serving. Breakfast cereals should provide more?at least eight grams per serving.

Sodium?Even if everything else is the model of good nutrition?high fiber, low fat, no trans fats’sodium can still be sky high in packaged foods. Your daily intake shouldn’t exceed 2,300 milligrams. Many packaged foods provide 25% to 50% of that in a single serving.

Sugar?While sugar isn’t a nutrition no-no per se, it offers nothing but empty calories and often takes the place of more nutritious foods. Unfortunately, food labels don’t distinguish between natural sugars (like the fructose in fruit and the lactose in dairy) and added sugars (sucrose from table sugar or added high-fructose corn syrup). For that, check the ingredient list.

3 Red Flags on the Label

Trans-Fat-Free?It’s the new marketing buzz phrase on a slew of snack foods, cookies and margarines. But getting rid of one ingredient doesn’t make a product healthful. On the contrary, some products merely replace trans fats with coconut oil or palm oil, which are high in saturated fats. And they may still be high in fat, calories or sodium. Moreover, even products labeled “zero trans” are allowed to contain up to 0.5 gram per serving.

Wholesome/Pure/Natural?What do these terms mean? Nothing. Marketers use these vague claims to imply a product is healthful, but in fact, they have nothing to do with nutritional value. According to the government, “wholesome” simply means “fit for human consumption” (e.g., no insect parts), while “pure” and “natural” have no official definitions. For example, some products are loaded with highly processed high-fructose corn syrup, yet still label themselves “natural.”

Less or Reduced Sugar?Nowadays, “reduced sugar” is code for “artificial sweetener added.” This is especially true for yogurts, instant oatmeal, cookies and fruit drinks. But don’t assume less sugar equals low-calorie. Often, sugar-free or reduced-sugar foods have as many or even more calories than the originals.

EN‘s Bottom Line. Reading food labels may prolong grocery shopping trips, but if you?re concerned about your health, it’s well worth the time. And practice makes perfect; the more you work at it, the better?and faster?you?ll get.

?Diane Welland, M.S., R.D.

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