Walk through the aisles of your local grocery store and you’ll find yourself bombarded by bright labels on food packages: “Reduced Fat!” “Sugar Free!” “Excellent Source of Whole Grains!” You might even find an official-looking green check mark on some of these packages, certifying that this product has been declared a “Smart Choice” by the Smart Choices program. However helpful they may sound, these claims are essentially gimmicks used to attract potential customers. While some of them may be backed up by truth, others may barely meet the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines for nutritional labeling. A few claims by various food manufacturers have even been accused as misleading or false.
Here are explanations of several commonly-used nutritional claims to help you understand how healthy the food product you’re buying really is:
“All natural:” This claim is virtually meaningless, as the FDA does not regulate the word “natural” in labeling food products. This means that a food manufacturer could technically label a product such as frozen chicken nuggets as “100% natural.”
Check the ingredients list to verify this claim — an abundance of difficult-to-pronounce ingredients may cue you in to something suspicious about this product’s label.
“Free of trans fats:” Surprise — a box of cookies labeled “zero trans fat” may in fact carry a substantial amount of trans fat. The FDA allows products with fewer than 0.5 grams per serving of fat or sugar to be touted as “fat-free” or “sugar-free” respectively.
The fat count is negligible if you’re actually going to eat one serving of that food product, but over time (and with multiple servings) the trans fat count will add up. Turn to the nutrition facts and look for the phrases “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening”, which are indicators of the presence of trans fats.
“Made with whole grains:” The USDA recommends half of the grains in a person’s daily diet to be whole grains. However, there’s a difference between the labels “100% Whole Grain” and simply “Whole Grain” or “Made with Whole Grains”. The former indicates you’re getting the most whole grains for your money, while the latter could signify that the manufacturer mixed some whole grain flour along with a lot of refined flour.
Again, the Nutrition Facts label is your best bet. A truly whole grain product would include the word “whole” as one of the top four ingredients in the product. “Refined” and “enriched” are all euphemisms for white flour.
“Enriched” or “Fortified:” Don’t be fooled by these positive-sounding terms — in the food industry, these terms mean that vitamins and minerals have been artificially added to the product.
Instead of relying on “enriched” or “fortified” food products, buy foods that naturally contain a good amount of vitamins and minerals, such as fruits or vegetables.
“Light:” There are one-third fewer calories in the light version of a food product as opposed to the regular version. In addition, “light” could mean that there’s less than 50 percent fat per serving — which isn’t saying much.
“No Added Sugar:” This product still contains a fair amount of sugar, but at least the manufacturer hasn’t added any extra. Keep in mind, however, that it may contain artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols.
“Organic:” Depending on the percentage listed along with this claim, you would be consuming a product that is composed of at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Organic products are generally comparable to non-organic products nutrition-wise, although a few studies have shown that organic produce contains higher nutrient levels than its conventional counterparts.
“Excellent source of fiber:” A “good source” of a nutrient contains 10 to 19 percent of the recommended daily value of that nutrient. An “excellent source” contains 20 to 30 percent of the recommended daily value, or at least five grams of fiber.
However, several sources of fiber are more healthful than others. You’ll want to get most of your fiber from whole grains, not from a source such as chicory root, because they may not have as many health benefits for your heart as fiber from whole grains.
So the next time you go grocery shopping, make sure to check a product’s Nutrition Facts label as it’s the best way to confirm marketing claims displayed on the package.
Update 11/20/19: this article has been updated to include links to the latest USDA recommendations.