Consumers are more health-conscious than ever, so some food manufacturers use misleading tricks to convince people to buy highly processed and unhealthy products.
Food labelling regulations are complex, making it harder for consumers to understand them.
Taking a little bit of extra time to read food labels when you’re shopping can have big pay-offs, but it can be hard to make sense of all those numbers. Here’s a quick guide to help you navigate the supermarket and decipher food labels.
1.Never believe the claims on the front of the box.
One of the best tips may be to completely ignore claims on the front of the packaging.
Front labels try to lure you into purchasing products by making health claims. Manufacturers are often dishonest in the way they use these labels. They tend to use health claims that are misleading and in some cases downright false.
What many think are health claims are just marketing pitches and advertisements. And government-approved claims, like “low-fat” and “light,” often don’t tell you the whole story. These products may be high in fat as well as sugar, salt, and/or calories.
Examples include many high-sugar breakfast kinds of cereal like whole-grain Cocoa Puffs. Despite what the label may imply, these products are not healthy.
This makes it hard for consumers to choose healthy options without a thorough inspection of the ingredients list.
“Light” ice cream, for example, may still pack in 4 to 5 grams of fat per serving. And “light” and “regular” varieties of ice cream may not differ much calorically.
Never evaluate a product based on any one item, such as its fat, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrate, or salt content. Attempting to cash in on the latest diet or nutrition craze, many companies promote their products based on a single item despite other unhealthy aspects.
2. Always read the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list.
They contain information that can help you determine how healthy a food is. Crackers, for example, may advertise on the front of the box that they’re “Trans Fat-Free,” but in the ingredient list, you may find fats, like palm oil and coconut oil, that are just as artery-clogging as the trans fats they replaced.
3. Check the serving size & amount of calories per package.
Decades ago, many products were single servings. A bottle of cola was one serving. One small candy bar was one serving. Today, many products are “super-sized” and contain multiple servings.
All too many people think a 20-ounce bottle of soda contains 2.5 servings, at 110 calories each, which means they’re drinking 110 calories. Now, in the real world, who’s going to drink just one serving of that bottle? You’ve got to multiply the 110 calories by the total number of servings, 2.5, to realize that you’re downing a whopping 275 calories.
A serving of oil spray, for instance, is 0.25 grams. That’s about 120th of an ounce – for less than most people could, or would spray on a pan with even just one squirt.
Don’t get too comfortable with “0”s either.
Because some manufacturers use ridiculously small serving sizes and because the FDA states that manufacturers can “round down” to zero, some products advertised as calorie-free or fat-free are not.
If you eat multiple servings – if, say, you coat an entire skillet with oil spray – you may be tallying up quite a few calories.
4. Check the calories from fat.
Beware of reduced-fat claimsReduced-fat or low-fat versions of foods aren’t always the healthiest options.
Sometimes manufacturers replace fat with sugar, which isn’t a healthier choice. So read the nutrition information to compare sugar and fat content on the original and the reduced-fat product.
It’s on the Nutrition Facts label. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you the “per cent of calories from fat,” which is how all health guidelines direct us to limit fat. You’ve got to do a little math.
Divide the number of calories from fat by the total calories. E.g. If the serving’s 150 calories, 50 of which are fat, your product is 33% calories from fat. If division trips you up, go by grams. Use this easy rule. If a product has 2 grams of fat or less per 100 calories, its fat content per serving, is 20% or less of total calories.
Reduced fat means that a product has 25% less fat than the same regular brand.
Light means that the product has 50% less fat than the same regular product.
Low-fat means a product has less than 3 grams of fat per serving.
Even if a food is low in fat, it might not be low in calories or nutritious. Even low-fat food can be high in sugar. Food companies also may make claims such as “no cholesterol,” but that does not necessarily mean the product is low in fat.
Don’t be fooled by claims like “99% fat-free” soup or “2% fat” milk. They’re based on a per cent of weight, not per cent of calories. So that can of 99% fat-free soup may have 77% of its calories from fat or more. And 2% fat milk has about 34% of total calories from fat; 1% milk has about 23% calories from fat.
5. Check the Excess salt in food.
Don’t bother with the percentage of Daily Value (DV) of sodium. Most of the packaged items are very high in salt, which is very harmful to the kidneys.
Anything preserved, frozen will contain high salt as sodium is added for preservation. One should look at the quantity of sodium present in a product, especially if it is to be served to a cardiac patient, overweight people or children because the higher the amount of sodium, the higher the risk of blood pressure.
Look at the number of milligrams of sodium the serving contains. A great rule of thumb: Limit the sodium in milligrams to no more than the number of calories in each serving. Your daily goal: less than 1,500mg of sodium. That’s been the daily recommendation for sodium for nearly 40 years, and it is now the recommendation of many leading health authorities, including the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
6. Check the types of fat.
Make sure there are no saturated fats, partially hydrogenated fats, or tropical oils in the ingredient list, including lard, butter, coconut, cocoa butter, palm oils, shortening, margarine, chocolate, and whole and part-skim dairy products. They’re all damaging to your arteries and heart.
Polyunsaturated fats (like safflower, soybean, corn, and sesame) and monounsaturated fats (such as olive and canola) are less harmful and would be acceptable, but make sure the per cent calories from fat are still in line – 20% calories from fat or less – or your waistline may start getting out of line.
All oils, even “good” oils, are dense with calories.
7. Check the sugar.
Watch out for sugars and other caloric sweeteners that don’t say “sugar” but are, such as corn syrup, rice and maple syrup, molasses, malted barley, barley malt, or any term that ends in “ol,” such as sorbitol or maltitol, or “ose,” such as dextrose or fructose.
Try to limit all these added, refined, concentrated sugars to no more than 5% of total calories (essentially, no more than 2 tablespoons daily for most folks). Don’t be concerned about naturally occurring sugars in fruit and some nonfat dairy products. However, on the Nutrition Facts label, added sugars and naturally occurring sugars are all lumped together as “sugar.”
Look at the ingredient list. Try to avoid foods with added, refined caloric sweeteners in the first three to five ingredients. Because ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, the lower down the label you find added sugars, the better.
8. Make sure that any grain is WHOLE grain, such as whole-wheat flour.
Many bread and pasta products claim to be whole wheat, but the first ingredient in the ingredient list is often wheat flour, which sounds healthy, but it’s really refined flour. Further down the list will be whole-wheat flour or bran.
Scout out products that contain only whole grains. And look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, which often ensures the product is mostly, if not all, whole grain.
Thousands of new products come out every year, many trying to cash in on the latest diet craze. Many may not be carefully regulated (if at all). Recently, consumer laboratories evaluated 30 low-carb nutrition bars and found that 60% were inaccurately labeled. Most had more carbs, sugars, and salt than their labels claimed.
9. Check Order of ingredients.
The food product’s ingredient content appears in descending order (by weight). When the food was being manufactured, the first ingredient listed contributed the largest amount and the last ingredient listed contributed the least amount.
For example, if sugar is listed as one of the first ingredients, it means the product contains a greater amount of sugar than other ingredients listed further down the list.
During your first few trips to the market, give yourself extra time to evaluate products. You’ll soon speed up! Once you’ve found products that you enjoy and that meet these healthy guidelines, shopping becomes quick and easy.