Decoding Nutrition Labels

If you’ve ever taken the time to read the nutrition labels on food packages, you probably had one of several reactions:

  1. Wow, I need glasses to see the tiny print.
  2. What the heck do these mean anyway?
  3. Why should I care?

Here are a few tips to help bring a little clarity to your food purchasing dilemmas.

 

(Family Features) Take a trip to the grocery store and you’ll encounter miles of aisles stocked with thousands of food products. Every product has a story to tell or better yet, sell. Information printed on packages is helpful but it’s often confusing and even a bit misleading.

 

Mother and daughter reading nutrition labelsWhile lists of ingredients and the Nutrition Facts panel are there to help shoppers choose foods to fit their nutritional needs, it’s not always easy to interpret. Learning how to decode the jumble of numbers and percentages is the first step in shopping for healthier foods.

 

“The best guide for making decisions affecting your diet is the nutrition facts panel, which is regulated by the FDA and for meats and poultry by the USDA,” said Carolyn O’Neil, registered dietitian and nutrition advisor for BestFoodFacts.org. “The Nutrition Facts panel lists all of the important specs, such as calories, fats, sodium, fiber, sugar and several key vitamins and minerals.”

 

Nutrition label 101

 

Here are some of O’Neil’s tips on understanding nutrition labels, so you can be a more informed consumer and make healthier decisions for your family.

 

  • Always note serving sizes: While a food or beverage may seem like a good nutritional fit, the first thing to notice should always be the serving size. Watch out because if you read that a serving contains 100 calories, for instance, that may be for 8 ounces of a juice beverage and the container may hold 16 ounces.
  • Be aware of unhealthy contents: If looking to limit fat, sodium and sugar, pay close attention to these call outs on the label. Some foods might deliver more than your daily limit for sodium! Remember that trans fat should be avoided completely.
  • Look for the good stuff: A healthy diet consists of vitamins and nutrients which nutrition labels also spell out. Go for foods that are good sources of the good guys – dietary fiber, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron and potassium.
  • Don’t be fooled by healthy looks: While package design may illustrate people engaging in healthful activities, pretty farm scenes and adorned with “healthy” words, note that the FDA does not regulate the use of creative brand names. As always, it is the nutrition facts label where a consumer can see what’s really inside. (Remember, the word ‘natural’ on a label these days could just as easily be ‘green washing’ as it could be natural.  Better to learn what healthy means).
  • Trust health claims: The FDA closely monitors the use of health claims on food packaging. So, if you see wording such as “heart healthy,” you can be confident the company had to meet nutrition criteria set by the FDA.

Prepared with nutrition label know-how, shoppers can put this valuable information to work to make food shopping easier on the next trip to supermarket. For other tips visit www.BestFoodFacts.org.

Green Market Glossary: Farmers Market Labels Demystified

Farmers Market ProduceShopping at your local farmers market is a great way to support farmers and food practices you believe in — and often pay less for fresher, tastier produce and meat. But all of those little labels poking out of crates of corn and stuck on egg cartons can be confusing or even misleading. Use this glossary for your next shopping trip, and be sure to ask the farmers at the stand if you have any questions about their methods.

 

Animal Welfare Approved: Available only to family farms, this certification requires that animals be hormone-free and given continuous access to the outdoors. Cattle must be at least 70% grass-fed, and chickens must be cage-free.

 

Cage-Free: Chickens with this label do not live in cages and have enough space to walk and spread their wings, but don’t generally have access to the outdoors. They may still be put through processes like beak cutting, which is done so chickens in tight quarters don’t violently peck at each other.

 

Certified Organic: Products deemed “organic” have been given the label by a certification body of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To get it, farms must provide a production plan that the USDA inspects for sustainability. Meat labeled organic comes from animals that were given organic food and access to the outdoors, and organic produce is farmed without synthetic pesticides or chemicals.

 

Certified Naturally Grown: Some smaller farms choose not to go through the process of becoming certified organic because it can be expensive, opting instead for this label, which has similar guidelines to the USDA organic label. The certification is offered by a grassroots organization formed to help small farms.

 

Conventional: A farm with this label doesn’t have any special certifications but may have introduced some sustainable practices. Ask the farmer.

 

Free-Range: This term is regulated by the USDA and means that the farmer must prove that poultry have access to the outdoors, though for an unregulated amount of time. The term does not regulate eggs.

 

Grass-Fed: To get this label, the majority of an animal’s feed must be from grass or forage. In addition to giving meat a different taste, a “grass-fed” label means that the farm did not have to ship in soy or corn feed, reducing the farm’s carbon footprint. However, the label does not mean that the animals were given the chance to graze outside.

 

 

 

 

Heirloom TomatoesHeirloom and Heritage: These labels, often seen on foods like multicolored tomatoes and twisty squash, refer to varieties of plants and animals that have been passed through the generations to preserve unique colors, textures and tastes. These lines are not mass-produced because they tend to me more delicate.

Locally Grown: Refers to products that come from the surrounding area. There is not a standard for how far away “local” food comes from.

Natural: This refers to a product containing no artificial ingredients or added color that’s only minimally processed, according to the USDA. This claim doesn’t need to be certified, however, and only applies to meat and poultry.

On everything else, natural is often more confusing than helpful. This is one label to definitely be wary of. Marketers have long ago realized the word “natural’ will influence purchases.

Related Rescources

How To Tell The Difference Between Natural and Organic

Why Labels on Genetically Engineered Foods Won’t Cost Consumers a Dime

Sweeteners In Milk Lead To Another Labeling Fight

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