How To Spot Misleading Food Labels

By:    Published: June 19, 2012

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Trying to figure out which products are the healthiest can be a serious challenge. There are so many different terms used and it’s difficult to decipher all of those nutrition labels when you’re just trying to get in and out of the grocery store in time for dinner. Here’s a simple guide to misleading food labels to help you find the right foods easily.

Words To Watch For

One of the first things to catch your eye on any food label will be the words printed right on the front of the packaging. When scanning the aisles, you’ll see lots of common “buzzwords” and other health terminology scattered on the products. When almost every product seems to offer some kind of health claim, how do you know which ones are really healthy? Here are some words to look for to help you figure it out:

  • All-natural: The FDA doesn’t have a definition for all-natural so use of this term may be meaningless. Generally, “all-natural” means a product doesn’t contain added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances, but there are other things (like extra sodium) which could be added to the product.
  • Organic: According to USDA standards, products labeled as “organic” must have 95 percent of their ingredients grown or processed without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. While this term is regulated, remember that not every organic product is necessarily healthy.
  • Multi-grain: This is a misleading word which makes breads or crackers seem healthier than they really are. What you need to look for is something marker 100 percent whole grain or 100% whole wheat.
  • Fat-free: Just because something is fat-free doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Many times, these products have just as many calories as the regular version.
  • Light: Don’t assume this refers to fat content. “Light” can also refer to flavor or even color.
  • No sugar added: Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean a product contains no sugar at all, it just doesn’t have any extra added to it.
  • Free range: This term isn’t defined by the USDA. It basically means that the animal has exposure to the outdoors in some way.

Serving Size Issues

If you’re looking for healthy foods, there’s a good chance you’ll check the nutrition facts label on the packaging. This is an excellent tactic, but it’s important to note one area of that label that many people overlook: serving size. Depending on what serving size is listed, customers may get an unrealistic idea of how healthy a food is.

One reason for this is that the FDA’s recommended serving sizes are not in line with today’s eating habits. For example, a serving of ice cream is only about half a cup or one scoop, which is much less than most people consume in one sitting. When reading food labels, always consider how much you actually eat and multiply the calorie and fat content to figure out how much you’ll actually be consuming.

In some cases, customers also come across similar products with different serving sizes listed. If you’re comparing labels on two or more products, be sure to check that the serving size is the same or do the necessary calculations before making your final choice.

Concerns With Nutritional Content

Speaking of nutrition facts labels, many people are a little overwhelmed when they try to decipher all the numbers and percentages on this part of the food packaging. It can seem like a lot of information, so where do you start when it come to figuring out whether a product is healthy or not? Here are a few tips:

  • Calorie content: The number of calories in a product should definitely be considered when buying a product. The average person needs about 2,000 calories a day. So for a breakfast cereal, for example, consider how many calories you’d be consuming if you had it and whether that leaves very many calories for your food intake for the rest of the day. In addition, make sure that you’ll only be getting about 30 percent of your calories from fat over the course of the day.
  • Fat: You do need fat for energy, but it’s important to monitor how much you’re getting. You’ll want to minimize the saturated fats and trans fats you consume and get more unsaturated fats instead. Limit your cholesterol intake as well – use the % Daily Value column to help determine the appropriate amount to consume.
  • Carbohydrates: Like fats, you need carbohydrates but you shouldn’t have too much of them. While sugars are carbs, keep in mind that the natural sugars found in fruits are a much better alternative to the added sugars in snack foods, candies and sodas.
  • Percent daily values: These percentages tell you how much you’ll get of that nutrient per serving based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day. If the product has 5% or less, it’s low in a nutrient. It’s a good source if it has 10 - 19 percent and it’s considered high in a nutrient if it has 20 percent or more.
  • Ingredients: Pay attention to the ingredients to see what’s really in your food. A good rule of thumb is to look for products with fewer ingredients rather than more as these is often healthier. It’s also important to check the ingredient list if you have any type of allergy or food sensitivity.

Bottom Line

Familiarize yourself with these tactics and your food shopping should become a lot easier. The best thing to remember is that you shouldn’t base your buying decisions simply on the health claims on the front of the packaging – look more closely at the nutrition facts label to find out more about the foods you purchase.

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