Figuring Out Food Labels

The recent buzz about companies removing artificial ingredients from foods might sound like good news, but it’s actually a double-edged sword. Find out why and then learn what four facts you need to heed on food labels.
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Artificial ingredients are finally getting the boot they deserve. In recent months, companies like Nestlé USA and General Mills have announced plans to remove not-so-desirable, even potentially harmful ingredients from their products.

Yet don’t be duped. While removing these ingredients, many of which you can’t even pronounce, is a positive move, that doesn’t mean these products will now be on par with health giants like quinoa, blueberries and flaxseed. After all, no matter how much the recipes change, Cap’n Crunch cereal will still be, well, Cap’n Crunch. Ditto for Butterfingers, Baby Ruth bars and the like.

So what’s a health-conscious diva to do? Turns out, if you’re going to buy packaged food, especially if it’s processed, you’ve got to go back to basics: Be a label sleuth and read the Nutrition Facts panel.

Health Halo

Food-Label

While nutrition experts will probably always debate what you should and shouldn’t eat, one thing is clear: Americans are eating too many processed foods. A surprising 61 percent of the food Americans buy is highly processed, according to a recent study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

It’s not just the non-nutritional aspect of these foods that worries experts. “Many ingredients still in these foods pose health risks,” says Lisa Y. Lefferts, MSPH, senior scientist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

Take, for instance, synthetic food dyes. Not only do they cause adverse behavioral reactions in children, but they also prop up junk foods, making you falsely assume there’s fruit in a product, Lefferts says. Other ingredients that worry CSPI scientists include artificial sweeteners like aspartame and acesulfame-K, BHA, BHT, propyl gallate, TBHQ, polysorbate 80 and artificial flavorings.

On the flip side, though, there may be an ironic consequence of this move to healthify unhealthy food items: It might actually create a health halo around these products. “People might get a false impression that these foods are now nutritious, especially if companies start placing words like ‘natural’ on the packaging,” says Allison J. Stowell, MS, RD, CDN, dietitian with Guiding Stars Licensing Co., adding that there’s no FDA-regulated definition for anything labeled natural.

In the end, of course, it’s good riddance to many of these ingredients. Who wants to eat something artificial anyway, especially if you can’t pronounce it? But don’t think you’re out of the woods yet. Ingredients you do know could actually set you up for bigger problems. “Too much salt and sugar cause more harm than all the other additives combined, including the ones companies are now taking out,” Lefferts says.

Create The Habit

The concept of reading food labels is nothing new. But for all the reasons cited above, it’s even more critical to make this a habit. Here are four of the most important points you need to watch out for on Nutrition Facts panels:

1. Serving Size

Serving size for every food is based on one serving, most of which are in recognizable units like pieces or cups, but the actual size of that serving can vary. “If you don’t know the serving size, you won’t be able to determine what role that food will play in your diet,” Stowell says.

Many packages, after all, contain more than one serving, which will affect how many calories and nutrients you’re noshing. Eat two servings of that food, and you’ll get double the amount of calories.

2. Total Fat

Fat might sound like a four-letter word, but healthy fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated not only help you feel fuller but also decrease inflammation in the body, which reduces chronic disease risk, Stowell says. Just make sure you’re not eating too much fat or the wrong type of fat.

You can find out how much fat is in a product by looking at the “total fat” line. In general, products that list total fat as 5 percent or less of the Daily Value are considered low-fat, while those with 20 percent or more of your DV are high in fat. Yet be warned: “Low-fat and fat-free foods aren’t always better for you,” Stowell says.

Underneath the “total fat” section, you’ll also see lines for saturated fat and trans fat, both of which are unhealthy. Look for products with zero grams of trans fat and low, if any, amounts of saturated fat, helping you limit your saturated-fat intake to 10 percent of your total daily calories.

3. Total Carbohydrates

You get carbohydrates from a variety of sources, including fiber and sugar, which is why you’ll see separate lines for each of these. Your goal? “Choose foods with higher amounts of fiber and lower amounts of sugar, especially added sugars, which have been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases,” says Stowell, adding that you should aim for between 25 and 30 grams of fiber a day.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know how much added sugar is in food. New nutrition labeling guidelines may soon make that easier, but until then, remember that the best sources of fiber are whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, all of which have been shown to lower heart disease risk. Not sure if you’re looking at a high-fiber food? While there aren’t any hard-and-fast numbers, fiber, not sugar, should make up the majority of total carbohydrates, Stowell says.

4. Sodium

Sodium does play a role in the diet, helping maintain electrolyte balance and blood pressure. Trouble is, most Americans are eating too much, which could increase blood pressure and heart disease risk.

Current guidelines recommend that you eat no more than 2,000 milligrams a day. However, that number drops to 1,500 to 1,800 milligrams for high-risk individuals, including people 51 and older, African-Americans, and anybody with high blood pressure or diabetes, Stowell says.

Opt for foods that have between zero and 5 percent of the DV, which indicates it’s a no-sodium or low-sodium food. The closer you get to 10 percent of the DV, the more sodium you’ll consume, and if you’re not careful, you could easily exceed 2,000 milligrams.

The Calorie Conundrum

When you start reading the Nutrition Facts panel, your eyes no doubt drift first to the calorie count. It’s every woman’s first instinct, right?

Yet calories can be confusing because that number doesn’t tell the whole story. Dietitian Allison J. Stowell gives an example of a 100-calorie food, which would be considered low-calorie. The problem? “Those 100 calories in the absence of any protein or fat to keep you full and satisfied may actually add 100 to your day rather than help you eat less,” she says.

Bottom line: Pay attention to calories, but don’t make them the sole focus of your label sleuthing. Add them to the equation only after you’ve evaluated other aspects of that food.

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