Does reading labels on food products make you feel like you’re deciphering a foreign language? Or maybe it makes you confident that all your health problems will be solved with just one bowl of cereal. Food companies go to great lengths to label their products in the most persuasive way possible. Often the final product is overwhelming, confusing and not always truthful.
Most food labeling is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Yet companies still have plenty of liberty for poetic license. Their marketing techniques shouldn’t come at a price to your health or food values. Here I cover 10 key points to help you translate the secret language of food labels.
Ingredient List: This is the single most important item on your label. The list includes all components in the food in descending order of weight. If sugar is toward the front of the list, you know that the delicious, sweet taste of that ketchup is not just from the tomatoes. This is also where you want to check for unfamiliar words that don’t belong in your food. If you don’t know what an ingredient is, look it up before buying it and putting it in your body.
“Reduced” or “less”: These terms mean that the nutrient in question has been reduced by 25% or more compared to the original product. The trick here is that if they are reducing something, you can bet something else is substituted for the lost flavor. For instance, Reduced-Fat Jif peanut butter contains 25% less fat than its regular counterpart but it also has 33% more sugar and 40% more sodium. Know what nutrients are important to your health and check them all before choosing these products.
“Zero” or “Free”: Foods that contain half a gram or less of trans-fat or sugar per serving can claim that the food is free of that component and even claim 0 grams on the nutrition label. The issue here is that this minimal amount adds up quickly when you eat multiple servings. Trans fat and added sugars are harmful to your health so check the ingredients carefully to see if they are hiding in your food. Trans fats will be listed on the ingredients as “partially hydrogenated oils.” Other code words for sugar include: corn syrup, cane juice, brown rice syrup, dextrose and sucrose.
“USDA Organic”: This green and black label guarantees that at least 95% of the ingredients in the food product have undergone the rigorous organic certification process by the USDA. For plant products like fruits, veggies and grains this means that the food does not contain GMOs and there was no use of synthetic fertilizers/pesticides or irradiation while growing or processing the food.
Certified organic meat is produced from animals that were never given antibiotics or growth hormones, were allowed outdoor access and were only provided organic feed. Be cognizant of the fact that the other 5% of ingredients may contain the pesticides or GMOs that you were hoping to avoid. Seek out the “100% Organic” label if this is a concern for you.
“Cage-free” and “Free-Range” Eggs: Cage-free hens are uncaged in barns but the label does not require access to the outdoors. Free-range are uncaged and must be allowed outdoors (although the time and quality is unspecified). Neither term restricts the type of food or antibiotics that the hens are provided. In addition, look for “Certified Humane” or the even better “Animal Welfare Approved” as designation that the hens were treated more humanely.
Fiber: We’ve all heard how important fiber is for your digestive health, cholesterol levels and weight control. However, many food manufacturers are jumping on the fiber bandwagon by adding synthetic forms of the nutrient to foods. Look out for these imposters on your ingredient list: inulin, maltodextrin and polydextrose. While they do still provide fiber to your diet, they don’t provide the abundance of nutrients that usually tag along in foods with natural fiber.
Natural: This word is basically useless on nutrition labels. There is no formal labeling definition for “natural” from the USDA or FDA. High-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and many other questionable ingredients are allowed under this broad designation. This is definitely a case where the ingredient list will give you more accurate information.
“Non-GMO Project Verified”: This new label is popping up everywhere. The Non-GMO project is a nonprofit organization that tests products whose producers apply for the label. The seal is provided to food items that continually contain less than 0.9% genetically modified ingredients. Although this is a third-party certification, it is a good way to be sure the food does not contain any GMOs.
“Fair trade certified”: This label refers to how the farmers and workers were treated and compensated while producing your food. It implies more humane working conditions and fair wages. Common fair trade items include: chocolate, coffee, tea and sugar. This is another third party certification that is widely recognized and respected throughout the country. Check out the Fair Trade USA website for a complete list of their regulations.
“Supports a good night’s sleep”, “Promotes Respiratory Health”, “Immunity Boosting” and “Provides Energy and Stress Support” are just a few of the extraordinary claims I saw in the tea and vitamin aisles. Sounds wonderful! The problem is vitamins and supplements (herbal teas fall in this category) do not need to be approved by the FDA. Unlike food items, the FDA does not strictly regulate these products for safety or labeling. Take these claims with a grain of salt and remember what grandma says: if it sounds too good to believe, it probably is.
The scoop on new labels
The FDA has proposed updates to the nutrition facts label to make it more relevant and consumer friendly. These changes would make it a lot easier to understand what you’re actually eating. The proposal is still in the planning phase. Some of the highlights include:
Serving size and calories will be in larger font so this is the first place your eyes go. Now it will be obvious when that small bag of chips contains 5 servings and 700 calories.
Serving sizes will be changed to reflect what we typically eat today. For example, a 20 oz. soda will be one serving since it is intended as an individual portion.
Added sugars will be listed in grams on the new label. The distinction between total sugars and added sugar is extremely important. Natural sugars from an apple are providing you with loads of nutrients while added sugar in a candy bar just gives you empty calories.
Potassium and vitamin D will be now be required to be listed on the label. These nutrients are currently considered “of public health significance” because they are crucial to good health and many people are not consuming adequate amounts. Potassium is important for blood pressure and vitamin D is vital for strong bones.