Don’t let food labels fool you

Nutrition FactsFood labels can be very confusing and tricky to understand. Often we don’t have the time to spend trying to work out what they mean and how to use them. A two-year study by the Food Advisory Committee found that consumers were being misled by “meaningless descriptions” on food labels.

Here are some tricky marketing terms to watch out for on food packaging:

Made with…as in, Made with Whole Grains or Made with Real Fruit
Roughly three-fourths of U.S. adults (76%) feel that these statements are helpful signposts in navigating their way to a healthy meal. Unfortunately, these labels can be applied to anything that contains even very small amounts of the boasted content.

Natural, All Natural or 100% Natural
Majorities also find packages advertising their wares as natural, all natural or 100% natural to be helpful in directing them toward nutritious choices. However, the FDA has never established an official definition for natural claims. Lightly sweetened and low sugar are similarly undefined, drawing attention away from sweetening accomplished through other products.

Labels on products such as some candies, will show the surprising claim: “fat-free.” This fact may be true, but these are empty-calories that are close to 100% sugar and processed carbohydrates. Thus, fat-free does not equate to healthy or nonfattening.

Here are some nutrition label details to pay attention to:

Serving Size
The nutritional information on the rest of the label applies to one serving, not the whole package. The FDA sets serving sizes for all foods―they are measurements, not recommendations. Total calories are calculated per serving, as are total calories from fat, so be sure to look at the servings per container. A bag of potato chips might say it has 150 calories per serving, but the entire bag might be three servings, or 450 calories.

Percent of Daily Value
This is calculated for a moderately active woman, or a fairly sedentary man, who eats 2,000 calories a day.

This is the amount of fat indicated on the back nutrition label, rather than the fat-free or low fat claims on the front packaging. More important than total fat are the numbers for the specific types of fat: saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. You want to see that the food contains relatively small amounts of saturated fat and trans fat, and relatively more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.

The recommended daily limit for an average adult is 2,300 milligrams; too much sodium can cause high blood pressure. By the USDA’s standards, a food is considered low in sodium if it contains less than 140 milligrams. A single serving of soup or a frozen dinner may contain 1,000 milligrams or more of sodium.

Check out these great online resources that help clarify nutrition labels for the common consumer:
– FDA: How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label and Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide (8. Claims)
– American Heart Association: Reading Food Nutrition Labels

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