Grocery shopping can be an overwhelming endeavor. We live in a consumer society, so food manufacturers are constantly trying to use packaging claims and phrases to catch the eye of buyers and gain their business. But what do all of those phrases mean? What should you look for when selecting foods and beverages? The following tips can help demystify these labels and equip consumers to make healthy, informed food choices.
Where to Start?
When examining a food label, always start by looking at the “serving size,” which is listed below the bolded words “nutrition facts.” All of the information on the label is based upon one serving, so if more than that amount is consumed, the numbers on the rest of the label must be adjusted accordingly. Another helpful piece of information is the “servings per container.” It can be eye-opening to realize that the bag of trail mix that can be easily consumed in a few portions lists “16 servings per container”! You might be better served to buy the individual baggies for portion control.
Tip: Try to make your portion, the amount that you chose to eat or drink, reflect the “serving size.” Use measuring spoons and cups as needed for accuracy.
Figuring Out Fats
Further down the nutrition facts label is information on the fat content. Of the different types of fat, some have health benefits while others do not. The “good” unsaturated fats are healthful if eaten in moderation (these can help lower cholesterol), while saturated and trans fats can raise cholesterol levels and contribute to heart disease. When reading the label, pay attention to the type of fat. For a general healthful diet, keep the saturated fat as low as possible. Avoid trans fats altogether by choosing foods that have “0g” trans fat. Note, the FDA allows products to advertise as being “0 grams trans fat” even if they contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving (these small amounts can add up!). Make sure to check the ingredients list and stay away from products that list the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” to ensure you’re completely avoiding these harmful fats.
Numerous phrases are used regarding fat content:
λ “Low-fat” means 3 grams of total fat or less per serving, while “reduced fat” indicates that an item has 25 percent less fat than the original product. If a regular muffin has 20 grams of fat, the reduced-fat version could still have 15 grams, a value which is still five times more than the 3 grams per serving of “low-fat” criteria. “Reduced fat” clearly doesn’t indicate that the product is “low fat.” Additionally, “reduced fat” products may have increased amounts of sugar. For example, some reduced fat peanut butters replace the heart-healthy unsaturated fats with ingredients like corn syrup solids, sugar, molasses, and other fillers.
λ “Light” or “lite” can have several meanings. It can indicate that a food has 50 percent less fat than the original product but can also mean the food has one third fewer calories, 50 percent less sodium than the original, or can refer to the texture or color of a food as in “light” brown sugar.
Tip: Rather than assuming a “reduced fat” product is healthy, make sure to check the grams of fat and the ingredients list to avoid unwanted additives. Always compare the nutrition facts panel of a “light” product with its original counterpart to determine if it is in fact a healthier choice.
Too much dietary sodium can lead to elevated blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, with an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day for most adults. Many labels have claims regarding the sodium content of foods.
λ “Reduced” indicates that an item has 25 percent less than the original product. But as mentioned earlier, read with caution because “reduced” doesn’t guarantee “low.” Some reduced sodium canned soups, while lower than the original, can still contains upwards of 500 mg per 1 cup serving (that’s one third of the ideal daily limit for adults in a single cup).
λ “Light in sodium” products contain at least 50 percent less sodium than the standard version. But again, some “light in sodium” products are still quite high. “Light” or “lite” soy sauce, while considerably lower that the regular soy sauce, may still contain 500 to 600 mg sodium per tablespoon.
λ “Unsalted” or “no salt added” indicates that no salt has been added to the product during processing, though the product still contains sodium that is naturally occurring in the product’s ingredients. Typically, the amount is negligible, so this is a good phrase to look for.
Tip: Always check the actual sodium content on the nutrition facts panel to see if it fits in your daily goal (a general “rule of thumb” for better choices is less than 300 mg sodium per serving). Always compare products and choose those with lower sodium.
While you might expect sugar in candy, sodas, and desserts, added sugars can appear in a variety of unsuspecting products like salad dressings, marinara sauce, ketchup, and even foods that are commonly perceived as healthy, like cereals, yogurt, and dried fruits. Added sugars have more than 60 alternate names, including maltose, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, and agave nectar, so even if the word “sugar” isn’t on the label, you can’t assume that product doesn’t have it.
Fortunately, the FDA is making changes to the label: the new format has a separate line under “total sugars” to show how many grams of “added sugars” (that which is added beyond the sugars that naturally occur in fruits, dairy, and some vegetables) a product contains.
Tip: Find the grams of “added sugars” on the nutrition facts panel and compare it to the general recommendations: for women less than 25 grams added sugar per day, for men less than 38 grams, and for children less than 12 to 25 grams. Remember to take into consideration the serving size too! Consuming fewer processed foods will also help limit added sugar intake.
Be aware that while “reduced sugar” means the product has 25 percent less sugar than the original form, the phrase “low sugar” isn’t regulated with an established definition. “No sugar added” indicates that no sugar was introduced during manufacturing, but doesn’t indicate that the product is low in sugar: for example, products made with fruit (like unsweetened applesauce) and milk (like unflavored yogurt) still contain naturally occurring sugars.
Guide to Grains
Many descriptive words are used for grain products (think breads, crackers, pasta, and cereals). “Whole” grain foods contain all three layers of the grain as it occurs in nature and thus are good sources of dietary fiber, B vitamins, iron, and healthy fats. Alternatively, “refined” grains have undergone a milling process that removes two of the layers, resulting in a finer texture and a longer shelf life, but also a loss of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These refined products are often “enriched,” meaning certain vitamins and iron are added back after processing. The enriching process does not, however, add back the fiber and other health promoting components originally found in the whole grain.
Tip: Check the ingredients list for the word “whole” before any grain — as in “whole wheat,” “whole rye,” “whole-grain cornmeal” — or other whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice, or wild rice to ensure that you are getting all of the naturally occurring benefits. Beware: phrases like “multi-grain,” “100 percent wheat,” “cracked wheat,” or “bran” may not actually contain any whole grains.
Insight into Ingredients
Looking at the ingredient list can be a confusing task, especially when the list is lengthy and contains numerous hard-to-pronounce words. Ingredients are listed by weight, starting with the ingredient that weighs the most and ending with the ingredient that weighs the least. As a result, the first few ingredients are the most important as they make up the majority of the food or beverage.
Here are a few of some of the commonly seen, and likely confusing, words:
λ Ascorbic acid: simply means vitamin C and is often added to preserve color, freshness, flavor, and texture and/or to increase vitamin C content of products.
λ Carrageenan: an extract of red seaweed used for stabilizing, thickening, and gelling foods, often dairy products like ice cream, yogurt, and cottage cheese.
λ Dextrose: a form of simple sugar derived from starchy plants like corn. Commonly used in packaged foods to sweeten, stabilize food coloring, and extend shelf life, it is an added sugar.
λ Disodium phosphate: a food additive used to maintain moisture and/or acidity levels, thicken, and stabilize. Watch out for this ingredient if you are on a low sodium or low phosphorus diet.
λ Natural flavor: refers to flavors that come from natural sources in which the original ingredient is found in nature, purified, extracted, and added back into foods. However, chemicals and solvents may also be included as processing aids. It should not be confused with the term “natural” that may appear on other parts of the label, which has no formal legal definition.
λ Maltodextrin: a white, sugary powder processed from corn, potatoes, wheat, or rice that is used as a food additive to improve thickness, texture, flavor, or shelf life.
λ Sodium citrate: a food additive used as a preservative, stabilizer, emulsifier, and acidity regulator.
λ Soy lecithin: an emulsifier used to keep certain ingredients from separating (like the cocoa and cocoa butter in a candy bar), and to protect flavor.
While some consumers question the health impacts of these food additives and ingredients, they are all approved by the FDA and labeled “Generally Recognized as Safe.”
Tip: Pay special attention to the first several ingredients and choose products that have whole foods listed as the first three ingredients. In many cases, the shorter the ingredients list, the better.
Happy healthy shopping!