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Can Food Labels Be Trusted?

Photo by admiller via Flickr

Photo by admiller via Flickr

As you walk down the aisles of your local grocery store, you will notice foods labeled as “fat-free”, “low in sodium”, “heart healthy”, etc.  Those labels make the foods sound extra healthy, but do the labels actually mean something?  Or are they just false marketing promises to convince you to buy the products?

That’s a great question.  In the past, food manufacturers used unproven nutritional claims to hype up their products.  Today, we have food labeling regulations that require food manufacturers to show evidence that their food actually delivers the nutritional claim that they intend to use.  So, you can feel comfortable knowing that food labels are held to certain standards.

What do these nutritional claims guarantee?
Here are 12 popular food claims that you may have come across during your grocery shopping and what they deliver:

  1. *-Free: This label is used in regards to fats, sugar, cholesterol or sodium.  It requires that the product contain no more than a specified small amount of the specified item.  When the claim is made about fat, trans fat, saturated fat or sugar, the amount of the item must be less than 0.5 g per serving.  With cholesterol it is less than 2 mg.  And with sodium it must be less than 5 mg.
  2. Fresh: These foods have never been frozen or heated and contain no preservatives.
  3. Natural: These foods contain no artificial ingredients.  However, they can still contain chemicals, pesticides or genetically modified components.
  4. Organic: Certified organic foods are produced without chemicals, pesticides or bioengineering.  Farmers have to use organic seeds and organically raised animals, which must be fed only organic feed and kept free of growth hormones and antibiotics and have access to the outdoors.  There are different levels of organic labels.  Foods that are made from only organic ingredients can be labeled “100% Organic.” Foods that have at least 95% organic ingredients can use the term “Organic.” And products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can use the term, “made with organic ingredients.” Anything below 70% can not use the term organic.
  5. Fortified, Enriched or added: This claim means that a specific nutrient (dietary fiber, potassium, protein or an essential vitamin or mineral) was added into the food that wasn’t there before or was only present in very small amounts.  This claim requires that the food contain at least 10% more of the Daily Value (DV) of that specific nutrient than before.
  6. Healthy: This label can be used if the food is low in fat and saturated fat and a serving does not contain more than 60 milligrams of cholesterol or 480 milligrams of sodium.  These foods should also contain at least 10% of the DV of calcium, protein, fiber, iron, and vitamins A and C.
  7. High, rich in or an excellent source of: This focuses on nutrients for which higher levels are desirable, like “rich in calcium” or “an excellent source of fiber.” It must contain 20% or more of the Daily Value for that nutrient per serving.
  8. Lean and extra lean: This is used to describe the fat content of animal meat, whether that be the type that flies, runs or swims.  Lean foods have less than 10 g of fat, 4 g of saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol per 100 gram serving.  Extra lean has less than 5 g of fat and 2 g of saturated fat per serving and 95 mg of cholesterol per 100 g serving.
  9. Light or lite: This means that it has 33% less calories or 50% less fat per serving than the regular food.
  10. Low: Can be used for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium or calories.  It means that you can eat a large amount of that food without going over the DV for that specific nutrient. Low fat must be less than 3 g per serving.  Low sodium means less than 140 mg per serving.  Low calorie means less than 40 calories per serving. Low cholesterol is 20 mg or less per serving.
  11. Reduced: Is a comparison method that can be used for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, sodium and total calories. A food must have 25% less of the nutrient or calories than the regular version to be labeled “reduced”.
  12. Gluten Free: These foods are completely free from ingredients that contain gluten, such as barley, wheat or rye.

The bottom line:
Grocery aisles are full of wonderful, healthy sounding nutritional claims. The key is to understand what they really mean.  And remember that some of the claims are in regards to how much of an item is in a serving.  Even a trans fat free item can contribute a significant amount of trans fat if enough servings are consumed.

So, while natural and healthy might sound good, those labels might not be what you are looking for or sometimes might be a little misleading.  So, make sure to read the food label and the ingredient list to see if the product truly passes your health standards!

Comments (2)

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  1. Maria Isabel says:

    I always read all the labels because of my allergies. I am trying to use less salt and fat on my diet. I appreciate the information that you gave me on this podcast because it gives me more insight on what to look out for. Thanks

  2. Sara Meyers says:

    I had a rule that if it was packaged and labeled it was then not so great. Ideally to get natural food in it’s whole form it isnt labeled and doesnt have an assortment of ingredients (ie fresh fruits or veggies) That is my definite ideal . I find being busy it is so hard to actually stick to this. The farmers market here is only 1x a week and the lines at whole foods are forever! Has anyone joined fresh direct? I cant figure out of they really are even natural or organic? what about one of those companies such as https://www.facebook.com/FarmerToTable or a local CSA (Im in the Atlanta area if anyone knows of any great CSAs as well?

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