Food Label Tricks

Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Nutrition
on January 25, 2011

"Read labels." It's such a common piece of nutrition advice it borders on cliché, up there with "eat more vegetables" and "exercise." But even box-scouring shoppers can be wrong. Consumers who looked at a package reading "low carbohydrate" on the front were likely to assume that the food inside was low in calorie and healthful while the food actually was not either, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Below, five health claims that may be misleading you, and where to turn for a more straightforward, nutritional snapshot.

"Low carbohydrate"
Even though most dieters have moved past the Atkins era, some still suffer from carbo-phobia, a disorder that food marketers are keenly aware of. "The public perception is that anything that says 'low' means 'no,' and that is really not the case," says registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, a New York-based weight-loss expert and author of Read It Before You Eat It.
Instead: "You have to look beyond the flashy front of the package," Taub-Dix says. Check the calories per serving and serving sizes located on the nutrition facts panel, which is usually on the back or side of a package. If you are concerned about carbs, look for the specifics there.

"While it may evoke images of cows grazing in the sun, the word "natural" doesn't tell you much about a food's origins. "The package may have some flowers or a farm in the background, but you're not eating the box. You're eating the food inside," says Taub-Dix. When found on meats and poultry, "natural" means that the product has been "minimally processed," but that doesn't get specific about the way the animal has been raised. As for other foods, the term "natural" is not formally defined and its use is not regulated.
Instead: If you're looking to buy meat from happier animals, look for the "organic" label. This government-defined and regulated label signifies that the animal spent at least some of its life grazing on pasture, and that minimal antibiotics were used to keep it healthy. Otherwise, head straight to the ingredients panel to decide for yourself how "natural" the food you're eating actually is.

Gluten-free food sales increased 74 percent in the past five years, and food industry analysts expect to see more and more products free of gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. And while this growth is a boon to those with celiac disease (a serious intolerance to gluten), all it does for the rest of us is confuse things. "Gluten-free foods can have a lot of sugar or very little fiber," Taub-Dix says. "If you don't need a gluten-free diet, these foods won't necessarily help you stay healthy.
Instead: Look at the grams of fiber per serving, located on the nutrition facts panel. Along with being good for your heart and digestive system, fiber will help fill you up and is a proven ally in weight loss.

"Made with whole grains"
Great! But just how many? Yes, whole grains add heart-healthy fiber to your diet. But if a food is made with only a sprinkle of whole grains (all that's required for it to be "made with whole grains"), you're not getting much benefit.
Instead: "100% whole wheat" is what you're looking for, Taub-Dix says. Make sure it's first on the ingredients list, since ingredients are featured in order of quantity, from most to least.

"Contains real fruit"
Food packaging ranging from juice boxes to fruit snacks to Pop-Tarts feature colorful produce images and language that boasts their fruit content. But if you're serious about upping your fruit intake, snacks with a squirt of fruit puree (as many foods bearing such labels have) aren't going to cut it.
Instead: Go to the source and snack on something without a label: real fruit. If you are looking at labels, flip to the ingredients panel. "If you see ingredients like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup listed above fruit, the sugar content is coming from the added sugar rather than the fruit," Taub-Dix says.