Don’t let the food label fool you

Published 2:31 am Monday, November 5, 2012

Enter a grocery store, and you are faced with a barrage of food labels touting products benefits. Unfortunately, food labels can be deceiving, making you think you are choosing the best choice for you and your family when in reality, you may not. It can be overwhelming and confusing to interpret the label’s meaning, but this is the season to learn the tricks to be able to treat yourself right. Below are some of the common label traps and what you can do to avoid them.

Natural: ”Natural” is one of the new most common label claims. What exactly does it mean?  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t developed a definition for the use of this term; therefore, it doesn’t really mean a lot and is often abused by manufacturers. The FDA does say that a natural product doesn’t contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances, but it can still have pesticides, high fructose corn syrup, lots of added sugar or fat, and be heavily processed. This might differ from what you would think of as a “natural” product. A natural version of the product doesn’t mean it is healthier or lower in calories. Read the package carefully to see what you are really getting.

Made with whole grains: The FDA hasn’t set an amount of whole grains that must be in the product in order to make this claim. The food may have only a minuscule amount of whole grains, with the majority being the less healthy refined grains, and still be allowed to use this claim on its label. It is important to look at the label’s ingredient list and look for the word “whole” (as in whole wheat or whole corn) at the top. The ingredients on the label are listed in descending order — greatest to least amount — so this can help you determine if this product is really a good whole grain choice.
“Wheat” bread or crackers: Folks, remember white bread is also made out of wheat. Therefore, white bread or crackers (which are made from refined grain) could also be labeled as “wheat”. It is important to look at the ingredient list and look for the word “whole” in the first ingredient, such as whole wheat. Then, you can be sure it is more whole grain than anything else, and you will reap all the rewards whole grains have for the heart, digestion, weight maintenance, and the prevention of disease. Another option is to look for breads or crackers that say “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain.” This will assure you that you are getting an entirely whole grain product.

Sugar-free:  Sugar free does not equal calorie free. Sugar-free foods sometimes add more fat to make it taste more like the original, which can make them equal or higher in calories as the original. Check the nutrition facts label and compare to a regular version to see if you are getting any benefits from choosing this option. In some cases, the sugar-free option will be the better choice.
Fat-free: As with sugar free, fat free doesn’t mean calorie free. A product lower in fat may add extra sugar or other ingredients instead. Sometimes it is minimal to none, and the fat-free option might be the healthier option, such as with milk. Consult the nutrition label to be sure.
No Sugar Added: This doesn’t mean the product is sugar free. This claim only means that the manufacturer didn’t add any more than was already naturally in the product. For example, fruit has natural sugar so a juice made from fruit has some sugar and could have “no sugar added” to it.
Trans-fat free or 0 Grams of Trans-Fats: Trans-fats are harmful to your health so they are important to avoid, but remember that just because a donut is trans fat free, it is still a donut. Trans-fat free does not mean healthy.

Organic: Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that weren’t treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and the feed must be free of genetically modified substances. Organic plant foods, such as produce, are free of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers and the seeds can’t be genetically modified. This has nothing to do with the fat, calories, or sugar. An organic cookie can still be filled with sugar and fat and be heavily processed.
Bottom line: Bypass the flashy claims, and check the nutrition label where you can really determine if this product is a healthier option for you and your family.
Andrea Nikolai is a Registered Dietitian at Washington Pediatrics and can be reached by calling 946-4134.