Reading and understanding a nutrition label doesn’t require a degree in nutrition, but it does require that you look beyond the fancy claims on the front of the box. If you know how to read between the lines of the marketing spin, you can know how to make the most nutritious choices without having to read the fine print.
By law, food labels must be truthful. But manufacturers can pick and choose which facts to highlight and spin. As a consumer, your best option is to disregard the claims on the front of the package because, while they may be true, they may not tell you the whole story.
Here's a list of the most popular food package claims used by food manufacturers—and what they really mean for you and your health.
The word "natural" is not regulated by the FDA and therefore is very misleading. Sure, "natural" brings to mind thoughts of fresh, minimally processed and healthy food, but it means nothing about a food's nutritional content, ingredients, safety or health effects. Almost all packaged foods today are processed in some way. Natural potato chips may use real potatoes (instead of flakes), for example, but like regular potato chips, they are still a high-fat food choice with little nutritional content. Natural candy may be sweetened with cane juice (instead of white sugar), but it can still contribute to weight gain when eaten in excess.
"Made With Real Fruit" or "Contains Real Fruit Juice"
You see "made with real fruit" frequently on fruit snacks, fruity cookies and cereals, and fruit drinks. Since there is no law that requires how much real fruit has to be included in a food that uses this claim, the sugary treat could contain just one grape or one drop of orange juice to be accurate. However, a quick look at the ingredients list will show you what you need to know. When high-fructose corn syrup and/or sugar are listed as the first ingredients, you know the "real fruit" content of the product isn't significant. This is sugary junk food that is trying to masquerade as healthy—but now you know better!
This is one of the most popular marketing claims of late, and the most confusing. Today we see "whole grain" logos on almost all grain products, including sugary breakfast cereals. The reality is that refined white flour—with just a touch of whole wheat added back in—can be listed as "whole grain." A food manufacturer can use the term "whole grain" no matter how much whole wheat the product contains. What the various "whole grain" terms actually mean may surprise you:
- "Made with whole grains": All it needs is one tiny bit of whole grains to use this claim, which means nothing for your health.
- "Wheat flour" or "100 percent wheat": Again, this is a ploy that tries to fool consumers. You want to look for "whole wheat flour" or "100 percent whole wheat", not just the word "wheat."
- "Multigrain": This doesn't explain whether the grains are refined or whole, just that there is more than one type of grain. Multigrain has no proven health benefits, especially if all those grains are refined, and they probably are (unless the ingredients list proves otherwise).
- "Whole grain": This term is also misleading, because whole grains can contain various blends of grains that are refined. You want to avoid words like enriched and bleached on the ingredients label. You can only trust the term "100 percent whole grain" to be a healthy choice.
- "X Grams of Whole Grains": Don't let the grams of whole grains in a food confuse you. A food can claim that it's a "good source" of whole grains, but that does not mean it's high in fiber (it may have little to none).
"Fat-free" food labels may also tempt you to believe these are healthier food selections. Sometimes this can be helpful, like when choosing skim milk over higher fat varieties. But take the time to read labels. When a meat label boasts that it's 95 percent fat-free, it sounds like a healthy choice since only 5 percent of it is fat. But fat contains a lot of calories, so check out the nutrition facts label for the actual number of calories and fat grams per serving.
An example of an unhelpful fat-free claim is a carton of 100 percent orange juice. Here, a fat-free claim isn’t helpful labeling, even though it is truthful. Oranges are naturally fat-free, so 100 percent orange juice always has and always will be fat-free, regardless of whether it is highlighted on the label or not.
"Zero Trans Fats"
Experts recommend that people avoid trans fats, which are created when oils are hydrogenated during food processing. But you can't trust a product's claim of zero trans fats, nor can you trust the nutrition facts label on this one. Always read the ingredients list. If the words "partially hydrogenated" appear in it at all, then the food does contain trans fats. But thanks to labeling guidelines, any food that contains 0.5 grams or less of a nutrient can be listed as zero grams on the nutrition facts label.
This may seem insignificant, but it does add up. Think about a box of cookies. It says "zero trans fats" on the front of the box and on the nutrition facts label, but it lists "partially hydrogenated oils" in the ingredients list. This food can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, yet the labeling is legit. Over time, when you consume the six, 10 or 20 servings of cookies in the box, you'll consume three, five or 10 grams of trans fats. Since there is no safe level of trans fat consumption, this food is not good for your health.
Making Healthy Choices
Most of your food choices should come from whole, unprocessed sources: fresh meat, beans and legumes, real fruits and vegetables, calcium-rich foods like dairy, oats and other whole grains. Remember, you can't make nutritious food selections based solely on the marketing phrases on the front of a package. These buzzwords are meant to catch your attention and are put there by marketing gurus so that you'll buy their product. Once you've looked at the package, ask yourself, "Does this food company have my health in mind?" The more processed a food is, the less reliable the claims on its package become.