Have you ever looked at a food label and just scratched your head? What exactly is “antioxident-rich” or “low fat?” Are there precise definitions for these terms? Unfortunately, many food marketers attempt to boost sales by appealing to your desire to be healthy and fit. For example, the front of the Cheerios’ package used to claim that the breakfast cereal could “lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks.” It took the FDA two years to change the label to something a bit more accurate (“As part of a heart healthy diet, the soluble fiber in Cheerios can help reduce your cholesterol”). “You go down supermarket aisles and see products with immunity claims with glucosamine and teas designed to fight every ailment under the sun,” says Ilene Ringle Heller, Senior Regulatory Counsel for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. According to Heller, misleading claims are “rampant.” However, there are some food labels that inform, not deceive. Here’s your guide to food labels, so that you can make informed decisions on your grocery list items.
Low carb: There’s no regulated definition for the term “low carb,” so it can mean any number of things, or, by contrast, nothing! Additionally, there’s no solid evidence that low carb diets are better for those who want to lose weight in comparison to other diets. The term doesn’t signify if the carbs are so called “good” or “bad” carbs (whole grain and produce as opposed to refined carbohydrates) either. For safe measure, check the ingredients listed on the back of the box for artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and high-fat ingredients when you see the term “low carb.”
0g Trans Fat: This term indicates that the product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. Trans fats are associated with raising bad LDL cholesterol and lowering good HDL cholesterol, which increases a person’s risk of developing heart disease and having a stroke. Trans fats are sometimes replaced with unhealthy saturated fats, like palm and coconut oils, which also aren’t ideal. Therefore, check the ingredients list of any product that claims it has 0g of trans fat for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils and check the saturated fat levels.
Sugar free: This label indicates that there are less than 0.5 g sugars per labeled serving. Keep in mind that “sugar-free” doesn’t always mean low calorie. Check the ingredients for artificial sweeteners, if you prefer natural over artificial sugars. Manufacturers often replace sugar with artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, such as lactitol, sorbitol, and xylitol, which may act as laxatives.
Reduced sugar: This label indicates that there are at least 25% less sugars per RACC (reference amount customarily consumed) than an appropriate reference food. The label is a bit ambiguous so make sure to double check the back of the box when you see this phrase.
Low sodium: The “low sodium” label indicates that there are 140 mg or less per RACC. Most adults should consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, however Americans average 3,000 to 5,000 milligrams daily. While you should check the sodium content in products like soups and chips, bread products also sometimes contain high amounts of sodium. Choose foods with fewer milligrams of sodium than calories. If a product contains 200 calories per serving, for instance, it should contain 200 milligrams or less of sodium, according to Real Simple magazine.
Light or Lite: Most often, this term indicates that the item has a third fewer calories than its full-calorie equivalent. When it refers to sodium or fat, it means the item has up to 50 percent less. If you’re trying to pay special attention to your caloric indicate, the labels “light,” in addition to labels like “low calorie,” could be of help to you.
Organic: We all know that we should shop organic, but what does this label really mean? The USDA defines organic as food that has been produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality. Even further, organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. A USDA brochure explains that, “Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.”
Packed with Antioxidants: Antioxidants “inhibit the potentially harmful (but inevitable) process of cellular oxidation.” You don’t have to be a rocket-scientist to gather that antioxidants are great for your body, with anti-cancer and anti-aging benefits. Unfortunately, however, this label has no formal definition. Shape magazine explains, “When you see ‘packed with antioxidants,’ it usually means that the food was either made with something that once had antioxidants in it—like fruit juice used for coloring cereal—or that the food was fortified with some vitamins. Unfortunately nutrients extracted from food don’t have all the health benefits of nutrients eaten in their natural state.” Instead, get your antioxidants from fruits and veggies.
Bottom line: it’s best to remain vigilant and play close attention to your labels when you’re perusing the grocery store. If you keep reliable and unreliable labels in mind when making your basic grocery list, you’ll never be fooled by marketing ploys.