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Uncovering Food Label and Nutrition Traps

Understanding nutrition claims and market tricks will allow the average shopper to make quick, healthy choices without spending hours comparing labels.
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Consumers today are more health conscious than ever. Nutrition trends for 2012 stress healthier, sustainable, whole and organic foods. The "slow food" movement emphasizing "good, clean and fair" food has become a way of life for many. Beyond these hot topics, mindful individuals want to make healthy, nutritious choices. Understanding nutrition claims and market tricks will allow the average shopper to make quick, healthy choices without spending hours comparing labels.

Certain claims on packaged items are regulated by the FDA. A product with the following statements must abide by several restrictions:

  • Fat Free: Less than half a gram of fat per serving
  • Low Calorie: No more than 40 calories per serving
  • Sugar Free: Less than half a gram of sugar per serving
  • Low Sodium: No more than 140 mg of sodium per serving
  • High, rich in, excellent source of: 20 percent or more of the recommended daily value of the nutrient
  • Less, fewer, reduced: 25 percent or less of the named nutrient

What are some other marketing terms that aren't standardized by the FDA?

  • Organic: Must meet the USDA standards for organic production, without most synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics and genetically engineered ingredients. Being labeled "organic" has nothing to do with the calorie, fat or sugar content of a food. I recommend going organic for particular fruits and vegetables- especially those that are considered part of the "dirty dozen."

  • Natural: Only regulated by the FDA for meat and poultry products. This label means "no artificial substances." Companies use the term "natural" on their products hoping that it will catch the eye of a health-conscious consumer; the product may not be superior to its competition.
  • Local: Not a monitored claim. Shop at markets and nearby farms to know that your food is coming from a "local" source.
  • Free Range: A USDA definition for eggs and poultry where chickens have "access to the outside," no other specific spatial restrictions are given. "Free range" beef and pork labels are not regulated. Know your manufacturer and the company background to be safe about your meat choices.
  • Made with Whole Grains: A general term with a broad meaning. The product may be 99 percent refined grains, while 1 percent is actually whole grains. "Multigrain" is another overused word stating that the food is made with several grains. At least half of all grains eaten should be whole grains; make sure that "whole" is contained in the ingredient list.
  • Lightly sweetened: Another expression that is not controlled. Lightly sweetened is variable, depending on the size of your sweet tooth!
  • Fiber: A product "high in fiber" may contain the isolated, added fibers such as inulin, maltodextrin and polydextrose; these types haven't been proven to offer the health benefits from fiber found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Be wary of packaged foods that claim to be the newest, ultra-healthy solution. Cookies, cakes and snack foods are just that. They won't ever replace your best choices: whole foods with real ingredients.

    For more by Carrie Wiatt, M.S., click here.

    For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

    Flickr photo by photologue_np

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