How many times have you gone to the grocery store, looked at your choices, started reading labels, said f*** it, and then picked up whatever you saw first? Label reading can seem like a daunting task with all of the numbers, different nutrients, the fact that your doctor told you to go low sodium or low fat, this heart healthy label on the front, gluten free? – what does it all mean? I’m here to inform you what it all means, narrow it down and try to keep it as simple as possible for you so that you don’t have to spend an hour in the grocery store. [I think I’m one of the few weirdos that actually LOVES to grocery shop and would love to spend an hour there.]

Let’s start with the front of a package. This is where you will find health claims. They come in different categories including:  nutrient content claims, health claims, and structure/function claims. All of the statements have to be approved by the FDA before they can place a health claim on their package.

Nutrient content claims denote a food as something like “low-fat” or “high fiber”. See the list below to find out what exactly each one actually means:

  • Free – less than 5 calories, less than 0.5 grams of fat, or less than 0.5 grams of sugar
  • Low – less than 40 calories, less than 3 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, less than 140 mg of sodium, or less than 20 mg of cholesterol
  • Lean – less than 10 grams of fat; less than 4.5 grams saturated fat
  • Extra lean – less than 5 grams of fat; less than 3 grams saturated fat
  • High – 20% or more of the daily value for a particular nutrient
  • Good source – 10-19% of the daily value for a particular nutrient
  • Reduced – contains at least 25% less of a nutrient per calorie
  • Less – contains 25% less of a nutrient per calorie
  • Light – contains 1/3 fewer calories and/or 50% less fat, or contains 50% less sodium
  • More – 10% more of a nutrient
  • Healthy – must contain limited amounts of sodium and cholesterol and contain at least 10% or more of one or more of these nutrients: vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber. The position on fat has recently changed and may now include this term if the fat profile is not necessarily low fat, but predominantly unsaturated fat.
  • Gluten free – less than 20 parts per million of gluten (the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley)

Health claims suggest a correlation between a food and a health-related condition (i.e. heart disease). That heart symbol is the health claim indicating that the product is considered “heart healthy”.

Twelve health claims have been approved by the FDA:

  • calcium, vitamin D and osteoporosis
  • sodium and hypertension
  • dietary fat and cancer
  • saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease
  • fiber containing grain products, fruits, vegetables and cancer
  • fiber-containing grains, fruits, vegetables and heart disease
  • fruits, vegetables and cancer
  • folic acid and neural tube defects
  • non-cariogenic carbohydrate sweeteners and dental caries
  • soluble fiber from certain foods and heart disease
  • soy protein and heart disease
  • stanols/sterols and heart disease

Structure/function claims describe the role a nutrient plays on a physiological function, such as “fiber keeps you regular,” “vitamin A helps protect your eyes,” or “calcium builds strong bones”.

The food label used to only refer to what the food contained (see above). Now the food labels are starting to advertise how the food was grown, raised, or processed. Here are a few terms you may encounter:

  • no antibiotics or raised without antibiotics: only used on red meat, poultry, and egg packages. Milk from cows treated with antibiotics cannot be sold, so milk products should never have this claim.
  • no hormones added or no hormones administered: may appear on beef labels, but pigs and egg-laying hens are prohibited from receiving hormones.
  • organic: can appear as “100% organic”, “organic”, or “made with organic ingredients”. Products containing less than 70% organic ingredients may list organic ingredients on the information panel, but these foods cannot display the USDA organic seal or the word “organic” anywhere on the front of the package.
  • GMO claims may include “not bioengineered”, “not genetically engineered”, “not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology”, or “we do not use ingredients that were produced using modern biotechnology”.
  • The term “natural” can have many different meanings to different people. Currently it means having nothing artificial or synthetic (including color additives) added to the food. This term does not address pesticides, food manufacturing techniques such as pasteurization, or the nutritional adequacy of a food.

Information from Natalie Rizzo MS, RD – article in Food & Nutrition magazine Jan/Feb 2017

…so that’s the front of the package.

I usually suggest that the front of the package has become more marketing material than anything else. In order to determine if a food is actually a good choice, check out the Nutrition Facts label – especially the ingredient list.

The first thing to look at on the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size and servings per container. This may surprise you. Food companies tend to make their serving size smaller than what you would expect. That one standard can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup – 2.5 servings. I don’t know many people that eat only a half can of soup at a time. All the information listed below this is based on one serving. So if you eat the whole can of chicken noodle soup, you’ll need to multiply everything by 2.5.

Second thing – I usually ignore the percent daily value because it’s a bunch of extra numbers that don’t seem to be super helpful. Where it can be helpful is the nutrients vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron – if they have high percentages, it’s a sign it either has more of those nutrients or has been fortified with them.

Next, you can look at total calories, total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, and protein – but usually I focus on the grams of sugar. The grams of sugar are included in the total carbohydrates, but are listed as a subset, just like the grams of fiber. Sugar drives things like obesity, diabetes, and chronic disease (which is the population I deal with most frequently) so I like to make sure the grams of sugar are as low as possible. Now I don’t care if that sugar is coming from high fructose corn syrup (which should never be in the food you eat!) or sugar, or honey, or molasses – they’re all added sugars. Natural sugars are the fructose found in fruit, and lactose found in milk and yogurt.  These are naturally occurring sugars already found in those foods, so I would expect the label to show a sugar content of at least 8 grams of sugar for most yogurt, 12 grams for cow’s milk, and anywhere from 10-20 grams of sugar for fruit (depending on the size and type, of course). [If you see fructose or lactose listed on the ingredient list, it may be an added sugar, especially if that food doesn’t contain any fruit or milk or yogurt.]

Next, look at the ingredient list – this is where different foods can truly be set apart. If your ingredient list looks like this:  walmart buns

You might want to leave it at the store. High Fructose Corn Syrup is the 3rd ingredient. Traditionally, bread is made of yeast, flour, and water; just sayin’.

Now let’s compare two different brands of peanut butter (my favorite example): On the left you have Simply Nature Organic Peanut Butter (I don’t always eat organic, I think this one was on sale at the time), and on the right you have Peter Pan Peanut Butter. Both peanut butter, both creamy versions.

peter pan peanut butter

Now let’s look at the Nutrition Facts labels: Nutritionally, not a huge difference. If we only relied on calories, grams of fat, carbs, and protein they would look about the same. But the big difference is the ingredient list! The only ingredients in real peanut butter should be peanuts and/or salt. Not extra sugar, or extra oils/fats.

peanut butter nutrition facts comparison

Something else I want to point out about Peter Pan peanut butter. The front of the label says “No High Fructose Corn Syrup”. Which is true, but it still contains sugar. It’s listed very clearly as the second ingredient. It also contains hydrogenated oils – which is a Trans fat. You might be saying to yourself, “Michelle, the label says it contains 0g Trans fat,” and you would be correct. But because the serving size likely contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, they can round down and list it as zero grams. Food for thought.

Other things to keep in mind: your ingredient list should look like a recipe, not something created in a lab. Now, some things will be added to maintain freshness, etc. But just be careful that your ingredient list doesn’t contain more chemicals than actual food ingredients. The ingredients will also be listed by weight from most to least, so the first ingredient will be in the highest concentration in that product. I usually ignore the nutrition facts and look at the ingredient list when deciding what food to buy or leave at the grocery store.

In a “nutchelle,” decoding food labels can seem like a daunting task, but once you get the hang of what you’re looking for and focus on good ingredients, you’ll be one step closer to choosing healthy options and filling your home with nutritious foods. Also remember, some of the best foods don’t contain ingredient lists 😉

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