|What exactly are you getting in your “healthy” box of cereal, bottle of juice, or buttery spread? It’s hard to be sure. Screaming for your attention on most packaged products are ingredient lists, nutrition fact labels (which list calories, fat grams, and other nutrient amounts), health claims (these tie a food to lower disease or health risk), and nutrient claims (such as “low fat” or “high in fiber”).
While the FDA and USDA regulate what manufacturers can say on packaging, the intricacies in labeling laws often allow some ambiguous—and in some cases downright misleading—labels and claims. So how can you know if the loaf of multigrain bread you’re holding is worth your cash and calories? Start by learning how to make sense of some of the most frequently used (and abused) lingo.
YOU THINK: It has lots of whole grains
WHAT IT MEANS: “Multigrain” means only that it contains more than one type of grain. The first ingredient in “multigrain” products is often enriched or unbleached wheat flour, which is simply refined white flour with a few nutrients pumped back in. “Refining strips wheat of its fiber-rich bran and germ, which contain valuable nutrients for runners, including zinc and selenium,” says Monique Ryan, R. D., author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.
GET SMART: The first ingredient in the list should be whole. “As in whole wheat, whole oat, or whole-grain brown rice—all have more fiber and phytonutrients than refined grains,” says Ryan. If the package says “100% whole grain,” that’s even better—it contains only whole grains.
YOU THINK: Fish farmed sustainably with no contaminants or pesticides
WHAT IT MEANS: The USDA, which governs organic labeling in the United States, will not certify any seafood as “USDA Organic.” So why is there salmon at your supermarket fish counter labeled organic? Because that salmon was farmed in another country that does allow the organic label, says Tim Fitzgerald, a marine scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. But many of these countries, such as Scotland and Ireland, leave the certification process to private organizations. “Organic fish farms abroad might be greener than conventional ones,” says Fitzgerald, “but you really can’t be sure since guidelines can vary greatly.”
GET SMART: Organic farmed salmon can cost 50 percent more than regular farmed salmon. Fitzgerald suggests spending the extra dough on highly-regulated wild Alaskan salmon. “Farmed arctic char is also an eco-friendly omega-rich substitute that’s more affordable than organic or Alaskan salmon,” Fitzgerald adds. Check out the Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector at edf.org for other seafood choices.
“TRANS-FAT FREE” SPREAD
YOU THINK: No trans fats
WHAT IT MEANS: Since 2006, all packaged foods must list trans fat content. But thanks to a loophole, products claiming “0 grams trans fat” can actually contain up to 0.49 grams per serving. Trans fat raises LDL (so-called “bad” cholesterol) levels, and researchers have found just a two percent increase in calories from trans fat boosts heart attack risk by 32 percent. The American Heart Association advises no more than one percent of your total calories come from trans fat. If you eat 2,000 calories a day, that’s two grams of trans fat daily—or potentially just four servings of “trans-fat free” food.
GET SMART: Congress is reviewing an act that requires placing an asterisk by a “0 grams trans fat” label if it contains any amount. Until then, read ingredients of margarines, baked goods, and energy bars. “If shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is one of the first four listed, it’s best to walk away,” says Suzanne Girard Eberle, R. D., author of Endurance Sports Nutrition. “There’s some trans fat, even if the label claims otherwise.”
RASPBERRY ACAI “100% JUICE”
YOU THINK: Pure raspberry and acai
WHAT IT MEANS: The artwork on the front of the bottle may only show acai and raspberries (or trendy pomegranate and blueberry). But the juice inside could be mostly apple, pear, or white grape with just a splash of the so-called superfruits. Though apple and pear juice are generally healthy, darker-hued fruits contain more antioxidants that can help muscle recovery. Filler juices are used because they boost sweetness and are much cheaper.
GET SMART: if you fancy a juice with 100 percent of what’s on the cover, scan the ingredient list for filler juices or purees like white grape or banana. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so if pear comes before pomegranate, guess what you’re mostly guzzling? Goji berries, acai berries, and blueberries are also more expensive than abundant apple and pear, so if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
YOU THINK: Healthy meat
WHAT IT MEANS: Most people are under the impression that all commercially raised animals—pigs, cattle, poultry—are given growth-spurting hormones before they end up on your dinner plate. “In fact, unlike beef, the USDA does not permit the use of hormones in raising hogs or poultry so this claim is irrelevant,” says Kate Geagan, R. D., author of Go Green, Get Lean. Look closely at the fine print and you’ll see that the hormone-free claim on pigs and poultry is followed by this statement: “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
GET SMART: USDA-certified organic meat is one of the most stringent certifications. “This means that the animal was not given hormones or antibiotics and their feed was grown organically,” Geagan says. Studies suggest that grass-fed meat is a leaner choice, with more heart-protective omega- 3 fats and less of the troublesome saturated ones, and it’s also likely to be higher in nutrients, such as beta-carotene.
Lost in Translation
Phrases that stump even savvy shoppers
The USDA says the product must be minimally processed with no artificial ingredients or colors. “All natural” products can still be full of fat, sugar, and sodium.
Light or Lite
This can mean the product is reduced in fat or calories compared with others. But it can also refer to a lighter color—as in light olive oil, which has the same amount of fat and calories as other olive oils.
Manufacturers often set serving sizes artificially small (when was the last time you ate just a half-cup of ice cream?) as a way of reducing numbers for fat, sugar, and calories.
The product contains less than two milligrams of cholesterol per serving. Bread and candy are often labeled cholesterol- free, but unless they contain milk or eggs, they probably never had it to begin with. Cholesterol only comes from animal sources.