By Rima Mehta
When you’re at the grocery store it can be hard to take the extra minute to examine the labels of the items in your cart. The various claims made on food packages can be confusing, and it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the information of the front of the package with what’s on the nutrition facts panel on the back of the package. But since most packaged food is made with at least some artificial ingredients, reading the label is the only way to know for sure what you’re eating.
First of all, ignore the front of the package hype! It’s just marketing. Manufacturers can’t lie on labelling, but they can stretch the truth when trying to get your attention to buy their product by using different catch-phrases to make their foods sound more appealing and nutritious than it necessarily is.
Turn the package around and examine the nutritional label on that back that is required by the FDA. A food label is like a recipe—it lists the ingredients that make up the meal, always ordered according from the mot used ingredient to the lowest.
Serving Size: A common mistake is thinking the calories listed on the label count for the ENTIRE product. Serving size can be expressed in kitchen terms—cups, spoons, slices, ounces, grams, or even specific pieces of food (chips, etc.). Serving size tells how much food makes up a single serving. The truth is it’s rare that one package is equal to a single serving size. Even a single packaged cookie might include 2-3 servings. Since all data on the label is based on the stated serving size, it’s important to read the serving size and how many servings are included per package or container.
Natural: Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, the term “natural” is not very well defined by the FDA; in fact, it’s not regulated at all. The definition is so loose that a ginger ale company was caught using the term on their label even though it contains high fructose corn syrup and other artificially made ingredients. “Natural” foods, particularly when they are pre-packaged, use more of a gimmick than a legitimate food descriptor, so it’s best to ignore it.
Cholesterol-Free: All foods that come from a plant like fruits, veggies, grains, nuts and seeds are free of cholesterol. Sugar is cholesterol-free too, but it’s almost universally understood as a terrible food. So when a food label on a package of nuts or raisins touts their product as “cholesterol-free,” don’t fall for it as necessarily healthy.
Trans-Fat Free: This is defined as a food that contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Thus, trace or even not-so-trace amounts of trans fat can be present in these foods. The giveaway: look for words like “partially-hydrogenated” on the ingredient list, a dead give away for these artery-cloggers. Don’t forget to review the rest of the nutritional information — even if gummy bears are touted as “trans-fat free,” it doesn’t mean they’re a healthy choice.
Organic : There are varying certifications of organic foods, but at very least, a food labelled organic means they were grown without conventional pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, hormones or antibiotics, generally for five years before they can gain USDA certification. Keep in mind that although a food might be organic and pesticide-free, it could easily have accumulated another, more deadly layer of carbon emissions if it’s been transported from New Zealand or Chile. Organic ingredients are a good idea, but not always better for you if they come from half way around the world.
Added vs. Natural Sugars: Some folks read the amount of sugars on a label and assume the sugar was added. This isn’t always the case. Take yogurt for example: It contains a natural sugar called lactose found in all dairy products. Look at the ingredient list to decipher if the sugar is natural or added to the product. Common euphemisms for sugars might be “high fructose corn syrup,” sucrose, glucose, cane juice, and many others. This site provides a list of 50 names for sugar you should memorize ASAP.
Omega-3 Fats: Not all omega-3s are created equal. Those from flax (called ALA) don’t have all the benefits (like helping with heart health) when compared with the omega-3’s derived from fatty fish like salmon and tuna (called DHA and EPA). Before you dive blindly into buying omega-3 rich foods, be sure about the kind you need and which kinds of foods provide it.
Fiber: Just like omega-3 fats, not all fibers are created equal. Some fiber is added to food products and may not be as healthy as fiber that’s naturally occurring. Foods like yogurt, crackers, bread, beverages and even sugar substitutes are now sporting these man-made fibers, which go by names like inulin, pectin, cellulose, polydextrose and oligosaccharides.
Reduced-Fat: In some cases, reduced-fat may mean more sugar was added to replace some of the flavour. Check the sugar content to make sure you’re not eating too much in exchange.
Added Vitamins and Minerals: Just because a product has 100% of the daily value for vitamins and minerals doesn’t mean it should be in your shopping cart. Many sugary cereals add loads of vitamins and minerals to their product and then use it as a selling point. There are tons of other ways to get in your vitamins and minerals without choosing a product loaded with sugar and/or fats.
Beware of Preservatives: Watch out for statements like these on packages: “NATURAL FRUIT FLAVORS, with Real Fruit Juice”, “ALL NATURAL INGREDIENTS, NO ARTIFICIAL PRESERVATIVES”, “100% NATURAL, REAL FRUIT, NO PRESERVATIVES”, and NO ARTIFICIAL INGREDIENTS. There are many ways to disguise the ingredients. Some of the ingredients that can be harmful in long are Ammonium sulfate may cause mouth ulcers, nausea, kidney and liver problems. Sodium stearoyl lactylate may be corn; milk, peanut or soy based, and may cause blood pressure and kidney disturbances, and water retention. Mono and diglycerides may be soy, corn, peanut or fat based, and can cause genetic changes, cancer, birth defects, and allergic reactions, etc.
Front label hype: One of the most distracting parts of food packaging is on the front of the package, which causes us to ignore actual nutrition facts. Many parts of food marketing are not regulated by any federal agency, which allows for substantial poetic license by the packager. For instance, Kirkland Weight Loss Shakes, which I swear by, advertise a product that is 99% fat-free. The calories of this drink add up to 230 with 2 grams of fat, 3% of the daily allowance. The calculation is 2 x 9(calories per gram of fat) = 18 fat calories; then 18/230 x 100% = 7.8%. So in fact, when the label shows 99% fat free it actually is only 92.2% fat free. While this seems minor, the difference between 1% and almost 8% is substantial for someone trying to lose weight.