Do You Understand Food Labels?
a special feature from Kay and Leslie, Founders Grandparentslink.com
Even with the information highway… it’s difficult to understand and decode all the labels we find on foods in the grocery aisles, be it fresh or frozen. And whether you are shopping at your local grocery, whole food market or farm stand – there’s an awful lot of stuff to decipher. Some of the labeling and terms are backed by law (FDA), while others just sound official and can mean something or nothing. Take a moment with us, and we’ll walk you through most of the codes, so you can make more educated choices.
You can use this guide to translate.*
Meats, poultry, or seafood with this label have to meet the strict requirements by the USDA (FDA). For every 3.5 ounces, these products must have fewer than 5 grams of total fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. A food that is just “lean” may contain up to twice as much total fat (10 grams or more) and also double the saturated fat per serving.
Tip: If you need to cut back on the fat, choose extra lean products over those labeled lean.
“Low Calorie” or “Light”
Something that is “low calorie” means that according to the FDA, you are getting less than 40 calories per serving. But, foods labeled “light” don’t come under any scrutiny as aforementioned. Something that is labeled “light” could simply mean that the flavor, texture or color is light with no change in the calories.
Tip: To determine if a product is really light, and possibly a healthier choice, be sure to compare nutritional facts and labels with its regular counterpart. And believe it or not, lighter foods are often more pricey.
“Low Fat” or “Reduced Fat”
The FDA requires that the “low fat” label means fewer than 3 grams of fat are available per serving, while the term “reduced fat” refers to food containing less than 25% less fat than it’s original form.
Tip: Just because it’s low fat or reduced fat isn’t always the best option and there can be significant trade–offs. For example, reduced-fat peanut butter has more sodium and sugar to amp up the flavor. Be sure to compare the nutritional facts here when choosing.
The USDA stipulates here that meat, poultry or egg products with a “natural” stamp must contain NO artificial ingredients or added color, and can be only minimally processed. Minimally processed means that the food can undergo only processes that preserve it, make it safe, or separate it into parts such as grinding beef. For products other than meat and eggs, this term isn’t regulated, so “natural” could contain some ingredients or preservatives that could be considered healthy. Flavor enhancers are a good example.
Tip: Don’t be fooled; “natural” doesn’t always mean healthier or better for you.
Foods that carry this USDA certification seal marked “organic” means that 95% or more of its ingredients are produced organically. The term ‘produced organically’ is all about how the food was grown, eliminating synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and without modified ingredients.
Tip: Again, be sure to read your labels carefully, so you don’t mix up what’s organic and what’s natural, as is often the case.
“Reduced Sugar, Low-Sugar or No Sugar Added”
Whew there’s a mouthful! Don’t get fooled here, these labels have nothing to do with another label “low-calorie”. Something that is “reduced sugar” only means it contains less than 25% less sugar than it’s original form. ”Low sugar” isn’t even a term by definition and can mean anything! “No sugar added” simply means that absolutely no sugar was introduced in its preparation, cooking or baking. However, a product labeled like this can have fructose and will be found on the nutritional fact panel of the food.
Tip: Be leery of the words associated with sugar, read the gram count, and know that sugar is disguised by many other names including molasses, evaporated cane juice, corn sweetener, honey, syrup and everything that ends with ‘ose’ (dextrose, fructose, maltose, sucrose)…. it all means sugar!
Here, your chips, bread, cereal or crackers contain two or more types of grains. But that doesn’t mean they are whole grains that are better nutritionally than the refined grains found in white bread. If grains are important to you, stick to the unrefined ones, and look for the Whole Grains Council’s symbol on the package. A company can pay to be a member of this organization in order to receive a stamp, which identifies its product as having at least 8 grams of whole grain in it’s serving.
Tip: It’s an easy nutritional fact to find as it’s among the first few ingredients listed on a label. Try and stick with whole grains, as they certainly add to a well-rounded diet according to our nutritional pyramid.
*Portions of this article have been reprinted and can be found in the magazine Real Simple, February 2013 issue, pages 75 – 78.