Your groceries have a lot to tell you – the trick is knowing what to look for. Of course, there’s the nutrition facts panel, required by the Food and Drug Administration since 1994. There’s also the ingredients list (required by the FDA for any product that contains more than one ingredient), and buzzwords called out to lure you into purchasing (“natural,” “low fat”). “You need to look at it all. Check the facts label, read the ingredients, look at both the front and the back of the package,” say Suzanne Farrell, a spokesperson for te American Dietetic Association. To really know what you’re buying, it pays to sleuth around the label, uncovering things – both healthy and not – that aren’t obvious at first glance.
Trans-fat-free: For years, the only way to detect the presence of the bad-for-you fats was to scour the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated” oil. But as of 2006, when the FDA required trans fat amounts on the nutrition panel, makers of processed foods have worked to eliminate them – and proclaim their trans-fat-free status on their packaging. “But according to the law, the label can read zero grams of trans fat per serving provided it contains .5 grams or less per serving,” says Farrell. If the ingredients include partially hydrogenated oil, watch your serving size.
Natural: When you see the word “natural” on a label, you can trust it means the product contains no artificial ingredients or colors. On the other hand, “natural flavors” listed among the ingredients are more mysterious. Most “natural flavorings” are manufactured (as are artificial flavorings), using chemicals derived from natural sources (spices, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, or dairy). This term cannot, however, be used as code for monosodium glutamate; MSG must be listed as such on the label.
Allergens: As of 2006, labels are required to list any common allergens such as milk, eggs, fish shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. So it takes a lot less work to determine if an ingredient on the the label contains an allergen such as gluten.
“-ose” words: Beware of the “-ose.” Anything that end in “-ose” is an added sugar. If you’re trying to limit your intake of added sugars, scan ingredients for words like fructose, glucose, or sucrose.
Fat- and sugar-free: Fat-free and sugar-free follow the same rule as trans-fat-free. A product can contain up to half a gram of fat or sugar per serving while declaring it has none.
“Good source of”: Packaging will often claim the food is a “good source of” some vital nutrient (such as fiber or vitamin C). While that seems like a fairly vague classification, it is in fact regulated by the FDA to mean the product contains at least 10 percent of the daily requirement for that nutrient. Don’t be led to think that a “good source of calcium” will necessarily provide a whole day’s worth. Turn the package around and read the nutrition label to see how much it contains.
Ingredient list: Pay attention to the order and number of ingredients listed. “They are listed in descending order, so you want the good ingredients to be in the top five at least,” says Farrell. If you see a product touting “contains omega-3s” on the label but the source of those – say, flaxseeds – is low in the ingredients list, chances are you’re getting just a trace.
by Sally Wadyka, a freelance writer from Boulder, CO, who specializes in health, nutrition, and fitness.