Nutrition Claims and Labeling Lowdown

High fiber Pop Tarts, immunity boosting Fruit Loops, sugar-filled juice boxes with Omega-3, and trans-fat free chips with partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list. Why do manufacturers think they can dupe us into thinking these foods are actually good for us? Well, to be honest, it is actually working. Here are a few tips to outsmart the food companies and how to navigate the Nutrition Facts panel and front-of package health claims…

1) Always look to see how much of the product constitutes a serving. Often these serving sizes are unrealistic and are less than a portion size (or amount actually eaten). Next, see how many servings are in the package. If there are multiple servings in the package and you plan to eat more than one, you must remember to multiply all of the nutritional values by the number of total servings you consume. (Ex. If a cereal serving is 1 cup and has 150 calories per serving, and you choose to dish out 1 1/2 cups into your bowl, you will be eating 225 calories before adding on your milk or milk alternative).
2) If the food contains more than 20% of the daily value (DV), then it is a high source of that nutrient. You want to choose foods high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Five percent DV or less is low. Try to aim low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
3) Look at the ingredient list for “partially hydrogenated oils”. This is “trans fat” which has been shown to raise your LDL or “bad” cholesterol and reduce your HDL or “good cholesterol” levels which increase risk of heart disease. If this is present in the food, I would suggest looking for an alternate option. Technically manufacturers can list “0 Trans Fat” on the package if it contains less than 0.5g/serving. A way around this is that the food company will just reduce the serving size to meet this requirement and therefore, can market a trans-fat free product on the front of the package.
4) Low-fat products can be deceiving because they often contain the same amount (if not more) calories than the original version. Remember, calories are what matter at the end of the day. They usually add sugar, unnatural chemicals, preservatives, and salt to make it more palatable, overall producing an often less-healthful food product. I suggest opting for the real deal in a reasonable portion. It will satisfy your craving and you will find you are full on less.
5) Structure/function label claims are allowed without FDA approval. These are claims that a particular food or ingredient in that product has a positive impact on how our body naturally functions without referencing a benefit of reduced risk for any specific type of disease. For example the antioxidants and nutrients in Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies “now helps support your child’s immunity”. Obviously, Cocoa Krispies are not a healthy option to begin with and should not be marketed as a food product that can help boost our children’s health. Be careful of these loopholes that food manufacturers use to deceive consumers.
6) “Wheat” or “Mulit-grain” does not necessarily mean it is a whole grain. Look at the ingredient list and make sure the word “Whole” comes before the name of the grain to ensure it contains all three parts of the grain including the germ, endosperm and bran. Grains that have not been refined or processed contain higher amounts of beneficial nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and fiber than their fortified or enriched grain counterparts.
7) In general, look for ingredients that you are able to recognize as “real food!” Remember, if it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t!
For more information on nutrition and health claims as well as how to navigate the Nutrition Facts label, here are a few additional resources:
Also, click here for a previous post by Emily!
These tips are by no means exhaustive of everything there is to know about health claims and food labels, but it is a good start. Pay attention to what the food actually contains and not so much on the fancy packaging. This gives you a great advantage in determining what is actually a healthful choice vs. what the manufacturer claims as healthy. Happy Grocery Shopping!
Krista Haynes, R.D.