What Are Food Labels You Can Trust? Sorting Helpful Claims from Ridiculous Ones on Nutrition Facts Panels & Packages

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "The Whole-Grain, Reduced-Fat, Zero-Calorie, High-Fiber, Lightly Sweetened TRUTH About Food Labels," September/October 2013

You'll never read a food label or nutrition facts label the same way after you learn what food labels really mean

I’ve loved food labels almost as long as I’ve loved food. As a child, I would scrutinize the packages of everything I ate, while I ate, to the dismay of everyone else at the table. I would quiz my younger brother on the amounts and percentages of nutrients in the foods (“Chris! How many milligrams of sodium are in this tablespoon of ketchup? CHRIS?!”) and make him guess till he got it right. I scoured breakfast cereal boxes when shopping with my mom to find the healthiest option. I think, perhaps, I was a strange kid.

These days when I’m at the grocery store, I feel like I’m walking a gauntlet of flashing Las Vegas neon signs: high in protein! with omega-3 fatty acids! contains probiotics! high in calcium! whole wheat! high fiber! gluten-free! all-natural! organic!

On a recent trip down the cereal aisle with my own kids, a certain box of flakes with “smart” in the name caught my eye. The front of the package extols the cereal’s antioxidants. A green banner at the top exclaims “fiber” and “whole grain” in capital letters, decorated with a flourish of light-green leaves. A stamp at the bottom informs me the cereal is good for my heart and a panel of tabs at the top tells me it contains a couple of great vitamins. At least six different healthy claims caught my eye. It looked extremely wholesome.

It wasn’t until I turned to the Nutrition Facts panel, where the “real” nutrition information hides, that I saw the kicker: there’s more sugar in the cereal (14 grams, or about 31/2 teaspoons per 1-cup serving) than there are whole-grain oats. (One of the six small tabs on the front of the package did mention sugar, but was overshadowed by every­thing else up there.) This “lightly sweetened” confection contained more sugar (and calories) per cup than Froot Loops.

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