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Deceptive food labels: How to know what’s truly healthy

By Brierley Wright, March 5, 2010 - 12:53pm

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Deceptive food labels: How to know what’s truly healthy

When you're in a hurry at the grocery store, do you find yourself making food choices based on health promises on the front of packages? If that’s you, buyer beware. This week the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cracked down on 17 food manufacturers, asking them to correct food labels and claims that suggest that their products are healthier than they actually are. The products ranged from frozen fish sticks to ice cream and organic vegetable shortening. (Convenience can have a health price. Find delicious, healthy recipes for ice cream, fish sticks and chicken pot pie to make at home.)

Of particular interest were warning letters sent by the FDA to the manufacturers behind 5 products that bear the label “No Trans Fat” because they gave the products a health halo they didn’t deserve. These manufacturers went wrong because they did not alert consumers that the products did have significant levels of saturated fat and total fat (which they are required to do with a statement referring consumers to more complete information on the Nutrition Facts panel).

Since front-of-package call-outs tend to be mostly about marketing, you should always check the Nutrition Facts label (and ingredients lists) to figure out how healthy a food really is.

What should you look for? Here’s what EatingWell expert Phil Ades, M.D., suggests in the EatingWell for a Healthy Heart Cookbook:

10 Tips for Reading the Nutrition Facts panel:

1. Look at ingredient lists: they’re the core of the label. Ingredients are listed in order of weight. You should carefully check ingredients for contents like partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils, as these signify the presence of trans fats. Fortunately, it’s getting easier and easier just to find brands that have no hydrogenated fats among the ingredients. Also look for added sugars (see above) and whole grains—the label must say “whole,” not just “wheat flour.”
2. Starting from the top of the label, look at the serving size. These are often unrealistically small. If you eat more than what the serving size indicates, you need to multiply all nutritional contents accordingly.
3. Next is the number of calories per serving, and the calories from fat. The total number of calories is very important if you’re attempting to control your weight. The calories from fat is less important. Much more important is the type of fat.
4. Further down you will find the total fat per serving and the grams of saturated, trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Amounts are rounded to the nearest whole number, so 0.4 gram would be listed as 0 grams, 0.8 gram would be listed as 1 gram. You want to limit your saturated fat to 5 percent or less of your total calories (divide your body weight by 12 to get the total daily limit of saturated fat in grams).
5. As for trans fats, you want to limit intake entirely. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are healthy, so no limitation is needed other than if you are limiting calories.
6. Further down is cholesterol content. This number is largely irrelevant as your blood cholesterol levels depend more on saturated-fat and trans-fat intake than on cholesterol intake. Ignore this one.
7. Then there’s carbohydrate content and, unfortunately, current rules do not require labels to distinguish whole grains from processed grains. The label does give information on dietary fiber. As a rule of thumb, men should take in more than 38 grams of total fiber per day and women should take in more than 25 grams of total fiber.
8. Sugar is next; less is better. The label does not distinguish between natural and added sugars, so check the ingredients list to spot added sugars—a frequent culprit is high-fructose corn syrup.
9. And finally, protein is listed as total protein. Chances are, your protein intake is adequate, and I usually don’t suggest tallying it.
10. At the extreme right of the label you’ll see each nutrient’s percentage of your total daily intake based upon the guess that you take in 2,000 calories a day. Since this amount of calories would be appropriate only for an individual weighing 166 pounds, this section is quite useless if you don’t happen to weigh 166 pounds. Instead, focus on the actual grams or milligrams of the nutrients in question.

Do you read the nutrition facts panel on the food products you buy? What terms do you look for? What's hard to understand? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Brierley Wright, Health Blog, Food & health news, Healthy kids, Nutrition, Wellness

Brierley Wright
Brierley's interest in nutrition and food come together in her position as nutrition editor at EatingWell. Brierley holds a master’s degree in Nutrition Communication from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. A Registered Dietitian, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Vermont.

Brierley asks: Do you read the nutrition facts panel on the food products you buy? What terms do you look for? What's hard to understand?

Tell us what you think:

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