Do You Know What You are Eating II: The Impact of Food Labels Today
In 2018, achieving better health, mindfulness, and overall wellness is as trendy as ever. A big part of reaching such goals is to clean up your eating habits. After all, it is important to know what you put into your body and to make educated choices when you buy food.
Do you check for anything specific when you scan a food label? Some consumers look at fat content or calories per serving, while others want to avoid trans-fats or meat byproducts.
Since 1994, manufacturers have been mandated to list accurate nutritional information on food product packaging. However, what manufacturers report on the label may be written to intentionally mislead buyers. Before your next stroll down a grocery aisle, be sure you understand the meaning of commonly-used terms and descriptions. Making buying decisions based on assumptions and misinformation can negatively impact your health.
How to Read Food Labels
Before you can translate any food label, you first must recognize all the components of a label. Obviously, not every product contains the same nutritional information, but the FDA requires that all food labels contain some basic facts, such as:
• Serving Size: Depending on the food product, serving size is typically listed in units such as cups, ounces, tablespoons, slices, pieces or some other measurement. Noted portions are often overlooked, yet this is one of the most important sections on the label. You might be pleased to read that a serving of pasta will only set you back 100 calories, but did you bother to notice that is only a half cup portion size? That two-cup mound of ziti set your daily budget back by 400 calories, not counting any added sauce or cheese.
• Calories and Fat Calories: Keep in mind, you need calories for energy and to live, and therefore “calories” is not a dirty word. However, taking in more calories than you need can lead to fat storage and unwanted weight gain. Consider the general FDA guidelines when viewing calorie content: low – 40 cal. per serving, moderate – 100 cal. per serving, and high – 400 or more per serving.
• Nutrient Content: It can be challenging to get enough of some nutrients while trying to limit others. Fat, sugar and cholesterol should be ingested in moderation. Choose foods with low values for these listings and look at the percent daily values. For a balanced diet, be sure to get the recommended number of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and carbs.
• Ingredients. The listed ingredients are presented in order of quantity, from most to least. If a jar of pasta sauce lists tomatoes first, you know that is the main ingredient. You can use the ingredient list to back up manufacturer claims, such as “no salt” or “sugar-free”, both of those items can be hidden under confusing names like sodium benzoate, disodium or monosodium glutamate (salt), dextrose or sucrose, or corn syrup (sugar).
Deciphering the Industry Jargon
Low-fat or low-calorie, which is the healthier option? They both sound about right. Do you really understand what each term means? Well, this is how the FDA breaks down food claims:
Calorie-free: If you are counting every calorie, recognize that calorie-free equals five calories or less per serving. This may seem insignificant, but the numbers can add up throughout the day.
Fat-free: The FDA requirement for a fat-free labeling is under 0.5 grams per serving. This is not a trivial amount if you overeat fat-free foods. Also, watch out for sugar content in low-fat products. To make up for the loss in flavor many low, of fat-free foods are high in sugar.
Let’s look at what the term ‘low’ really means per serving when referring to food packaging:
• Low-fat: 3 g or less
• Low-sodium: 140 mg or less
• Low-saturated fat: 1 g or less
• Low-cholesterol: 20 mg or less; 2 g or less of saturated fat
The terms lite or light, are like low but can mean something different. A light cream cheese may have one-third fewer calories than the original dairy product, or a competitor. It could also mean it has half the fat of regular cream cheese.
Poultry, red meat and seafood are marketed as lean or extra lean. How healthy is either choice per serving?
• Lean: Under 10 g of fat, 4.5 g or less of saturated fat and under 95 mg of cholesterol
• Extra-lean: Below 5 g of fat, under 2 g of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol
Including whole grains in your daily diet can help lower cholesterol and boost energy but take heed – some manufacturers claim to be marketing whole grains when indeed their product is made of refined white flour which lacks the nutritional benefits.
Organic foods are growing in popularity and for good reason. Unfortunately, you don’t always get the “real deal.” The USDA has created a set of guidelines for natural foods and the National Organic Program makes sure these rules are enforced for organic food labels. There is a difference between organic and 100 percent organic:
• Organic: At least 95 percent organically grown ingredients
• 100% Organic: Products must contain only organically produced ingredients
If a product is made with natural ingredients or labeled natural, that doesn’t make it an organic food.
Don’t Get Bamboozled by Evasive Labels
As the healthy-living trend continues to gain momentum, the demand for low-calorie, fat-free, whole grain, organic food options is likely to increase. Manufacturers are rushing in to meet consumer’s needs. But even today, there are misleading food labels mixed in with all the ancient grain cereals, fat-free dairy products, and grass-fed meats. Over the past decade, the FTC has confronted top brands including Dannon Yogurt, Pizzeria Uno and Haagen Dazs for making bogus marketing claims on fat, calories and sugar. Always read the label and make wise food choices.