Don't Let Food Labels Fool You
We’ve cracked the nutrition code. Learn how to read food labels & what those ingredients really mean
Eat healthier and feel better using the nutrition facts label — THE RIGHT TOOL TO BALANCE YOUR DIET. You probably already use the nutrition facts label in some way — maybe to check calories, fat or sodium content. But the more familiar you are with the information, the more you’ll want to use it daily to ensure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet. Use the label when you shop, as you plan your meals and as you cook each day. The label makes it easy to determine the amounts of nutrients you’re getting and to compare one product to another.
Strive for a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. Include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans and nuts. Choose foods that are low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugar. Regular physical activity is important for your overall health and fitness. It also helps you control body weight by balancing the calories you take in from food with the calories you expend each day.
Let’s face it; food labels can be deceiving. According to Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, publisher of Nutrition Action and Bruce Silverglade, CSPI’s director of legal affairs, it has been nearly 20 years since the government overhauled food labels, and since then, many companies have come up with new schemes to trick consumers.
They give three ways on how the food label can trip you up and what to watch for:
- The claim “made with whole wheat” should reveal what percent of the grain is actually whole.
- If a food is made with coffee, caffeine or guarana, the label should tell you how much of those ingredients are in each serving.
- Many labels claim that a food or ingredient can “support,” “enhance,” or “maintain” your joints, bones, heart, breasts, prostate, digestive health etc. Most claims aren’t backed by much evidence.
Calorie counts on nutrition labels aren’t always accurate.
Researchers at Tufts University recently analyzed 269 food items from 42 national sit-down and fast-food restaurant chains, and they found that nearly 20 percent of samples contained 100 or more calories than reported by the restaurants. Think about it like this: If every meal you eat has 100 more calories than you need, you’ll gain more than 30 pounds this year.
A food with 5 grams of saturated fat per serving shouldn’t be allowed to boast that it has 0 grams of trans fat.
High in fiber
Jacobson and Silverglade advise that the label shouldn’t count olydextrose, maltodextrin or similar isolated fibers as equal to the intact, natural fiber in whole grains, beans or vegetables.
Any food that contains high fructose corn syrup is not at all natural.
Serving size number of servings
The nutrition facts label information is based on ONE serving, but many packages contain more. Look at the serving size and how many servings you are actually consuming. If you double the servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients, including the percentage of the recommended daily value (DV).
Helpful Tip: When you compare calories and nutrients between brand, check to see if the serving size is the same.
For protein, choose foods that are lower in fat.
The % Daily Value is a key to a balanced diet.
%Daily Value *
Most Americans get plenty of protein but not always from the healthiest sources. When choosing a food for its protein content, such as meat, poultry, dry beans, milk and milk products, make choices that are lean, low-fat, or fat free. The % DV is a general guide to help you link nutrients in a serving of food to their contribution to your total daily diet. It can help you determine if a food is high or low in a nutrient — 5 percent or less is low, 20 percent or more is high. You can use the %DV to make dietary trade-offs with other foods throughout the day. The * is a reminder that the %DV is based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
You may need more or less, but the %DV is still a helpful gauge.
Know your fats and reduce sodium
- To help reduce your risk of heart disease, use the label to select foods that are lowest in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.
- Trans fat doesn't have a %DV, but consume as little as possible because it increases your risk of heart disease.
- The %DV for total fat includes all different kinds of fats.
- To help lower blood cholesterol, replace saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in fish, nuts and liquid vegetable oils.
- Limit sodium to help reduce your risk of high blood pressure.
Calories count, so pay attention to the amount.
This is where you’ll find the number of calories per serving and the calories from fat in each serving.
Fat-free doesn’t mean calorie-free. Lower fat items may have as many calories as full-fat versions. If the label lists that 1 serving equals 3 cookies and 100 calories and you eat 6 cookies, you’ve eaten 2 servings, or twice the number of calories and fat.
Reach for healthy, wholesome carbs
- Fiber and sugars are types of carbohydrates. Healthy sources, like fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, can reduce the risk of heart disease and improve digestive functioning.
- Whole grain foods can’t always be identified by color or name, such as multi-grain or wheat. Look for the “whole” grain listed first in the ingredient list, such as whole wheat, brown rice or whole oats.
- There isn’t a % DV for sugar, but you can compare the sugar content in grams among products.
- Limit foods with added sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose, corn or maple syrup), which add calories but not other nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. Make sure added sugars are not one of the first few items in the ingredients list.