Recently while grocery shopping, I came across a box of tasty-looking breakfast bars. The front of the box promised they’d give me nutritious, sustained energy, but the food label on the back told me the real story. The bars had less fiber and protein and more sugar and sodium (salt) than my usual breakfast cereal. Yikes! They were really just cookies in disguise.
It wasn’t the first time that food labels have saved me from a bad impulse purchase, and I know I’m not alone in that. More of us are stopping to read the label. At least half of all consumers say they read a product’s nutrition label when buying it for the first time.
Reading labels helps us make smart choices: Studies show that people who read labels are more likely to eat healthier foods.
But even the most experienced of us may not know exactly what goes into a food label — and what doesn’t. If you’d like to learn the facts behind ingredients lists, how to quickly decode food labels, and know what might be left out, then keep reading.
The government requires a nutrition facts label and an ingredients list on almost all packaged foods. We need that information because the food’s coming from a manufacturing plant — not our kitchens. Small businesses aren’t required to have labels, as long as the package doesn’t make any health claims. Labels also aren’t required for fresh foods and some other one-ingredient foods like coffee, tea, and spices.
The top of the nutrition facts label lists the number of servings per container. Calories and other nutrition information are for a single serving, NOT the entire container.
For each single serving, the percentages of daily values (DVs) are based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. The government established 2,000 calories a day as an average intake, but you may eat more or less depending on your individual needs. So you may need to adjust what these percentages mean for you. The DVs of cholesterol, sodium, vitamins, and minerals are the same no matter how many calories you need. DVs of fiber, fats, and carbohydrates change as the number of calories you need change. For example, if you need 2,500 calories a day, your DVs would include at least 30 grams of fiber instead of 25 and up to 80 grams of fat instead of 65, but cholesterol would stay the same at 300 mg or less, as would sodium at 2,400 mg or less.
The daily value information is meant to help you limit how much you eat of some nutrients and make sure you get enough of others. DVs with “upper daily limits” include saturated fats and sodium (you don’t want to eat more than 100% of your DVs of saturated fats and sodium). DVs with “at least” daily amounts include fiber, iron, and certain vitamins (you want to eat at least 100% of your DVs of these). Some nutrients on the label — protein for example — don’t have official DVs, so the label will only note their amount in grams.
When the label says that the food is “not a significant source” of a particular ingredient, it doesn’t necessarily mean the ingredient isn’t there at all. If a food isn’t a significant source of fiber or sugar, it means there’s less than 1 gram of either per serving. The same goes for saturated fat if there are less than 0.5 grams and cholesterol if there are less than 2 mg.
At the bottom of the label, the ingredients are listed in order by weight, with the ingredient weighing the most listed first and the ingredient weighing the least listed last. So all of us non-chemists can understand, manufacturers are supposed to use the common name for ingredients, such as “sugar” instead of a more technical name like “sucrose.”
If a food contains any of the eight major food allergens, it must be on the label. These allergens — milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans — trigger 90% of all food allergies. Warnings about gluten are still voluntary.
What’s not listed
Labels are helpful, but they don’t give us the whole nutritional picture of foods. For instance, it would be nice to know if foods contain vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, or phytonutrients (natural chemicals in fruits and vegetables, like carotenoids and flavonoids), all of which are known to have protective health effects. But the government doesn’t require that they be listed on the label. These nutrients can be voluntarily listed though.
It also can be hard to know exactly what certain terms and claims mean.
- Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines the term “all-natural.” In general, foods labeled “all-natural” don’t contain added colors, artificial flavors, or man-made substances, but they could contain preservatives or other additives.
- When buying organic produce, look for the USDA organic seal, which goes on food that’s been grown and processed according to federal organic guidelines at an operation that’s been approved by a government inspector and gone through a certification process. It’s the best way to know for sure if food is produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and irradiation or hasn’t been genetically modified. Some foods that are organic don’t carry this seal, but it can be unclear without it what’s really organic unless you know the producer’s methods.
- The FDA regulates health claims used by food companies, but they can still be misleading. When a bottle of juice claims to “strengthen your immune system,” that doesn’t mean it will boost your immune cells and ward off disease, for instance.
- Genetically modified foods aren’t labeled as such, but many people think they should be. Genetically modified foods have had their genes changed by scientists in a lab. The scientists add genes from a different plant or animal to change the food – make it more resistant to certain diseases or bugs, for example. There’s lots of debate about the benefits and risks of eating genetically modified foods, but more research is needed to find out if eating these foods is harmful or puts any new toxins into our bodies. If you want to learn more about this issue, you can watch the informative – and hilarious — video from the Just Label It campaign.
- Sugar-free, lightly sweetened, or fat-free foods aren’t necessarily low calorie foods and aren’t always healthy foods.
- “Trans fat-free” products could actually contain up to 0.5 grams of the unhealthy fat per serving. Although this sounds like an insignificant amount, it becomes larger if you consume more servings. If the ingredients list has “hydrogenated” in it, then the food probably still has trans fat in it.
- “Stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” or “multi-grain” doesn’t necessarily mean whole grain. Some breads and crackers that look and sound like they’re full of fiber-rich whole grains really aren’t. To be sure food is truly whole grain, look for the word “whole” at the beginning of the ingredients list (whole oats, whole-wheat flour, whole-grain corn, whole-grain brown rice, whole rye, whole wheat).
Keep in mind
Reading food labels can be surprising. Food packaging can be misleading (a picture of a fit woman jogging on a package of sugary breakfast bars) or even purposely confusing to entice you to buy. Take the time to read the labels, even if it means spending an extra half hour at the grocery store. And as always, use common sense: avoid foods with long lists of ingredients that sound like chemicals. Cookies aren’t nutritious just because they’re organic. A small container doesn’t mean the food is a single serving. (That small container of ice cream might just hold six servings!)
I find food labels particularly handy when considering two similar foods, such as two brands of pasta sauce. It’s easy to do a quick and accurate side-by-side comparison. If one jar of sauce has significantly more sodium, sugar, or saturated fat than the other, that helps me make my decision.
Do you read food labels? Do you have any advice for using food labels to make smart food choices? Let me know!