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Nutrition Facts: How to Read Food Labels

Everything you need to know about reading and understanding food packaging.

By Stacey Colino

Picture this: You're standing in a grocery store aisle packed 7 feet high with cereal. As you try to compare the hyped-up claims, nutritional info and, oh yeah, prices of several brands, your kid rushes over, begging for some new sugary cereal he saw on TV. The checkout line is getting longer, your patience is getting shorter and you still have no idea what to toss into the cart. Fortunately, there's a solution: Become a nutrition sleuth and learn to ID the important facts on labels—fast.

Fifty-four percent of shoppers in the U.S. read food labels when purchasing a product for the first time. But whether they fully understand many of the terms used is another story entirely. "It's a huge problem because people are frequently blinded by a flashy label or vague claims—and they often don't look at packages closely," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time. "If you put in the effort just once, you can develop a list of foods that are good for you, and then all you have to do is buy them in the future."

To help, here's a guide to exactly what to look for on a label, whether you're shopping for cereal, juice or organic chicken.

5 Ways They Try to Entice You

Don't fall for these pick-up lines on the front of the package.

Sugar-free: It means the food contains less than .5 grams of sugar per serving—but the serving size could be teeny, says Gayl Canfield, PhD, RD, director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa in Miami.

Gluten-free: If you or someone in your family is gluten intolerant or has celiac disease, you should definitely check for this term. Otherwise, don't assume such products are any healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts. In fact, they may be worse. "Often, these products have extra sugar or refined starches to compensate for not having gluten," says Judy Caplan, RDN, a Vienna, Virginia–based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Natural: "This term has a positive perception but no formal definition when applied to products that don't contain meat or eggs," says Canfield. After all, sugar is natural. Other meaningless buzzwords to beware of: "simple" and "wholesome." Unless qualified or followed with specific nutritional data, they're all marketing-speak.

A green label: This color basks in the positive glow of its association with nature. So it's no surprise that a recent Cornell University study found people assume foods are healthier when the label is green as opposed to red or white. "Remember, we're not eating the package," says Taub-Dix. "We're eating what's inside." Don't fall for images of wheat stalks swaying in the wind, either.

Low-fat: Sure, a product may have 3 grams of fat or less per serving, but it could also be high in sugar, sodium and calories. "Very often when one ingredient is missing, manufacturers add something else to make up for it," says Taub-Dix.

What to Look for First on the Label

Hint! It's on the back. Follow these rules of thumb when evaluating nutrition facts panels and you'll make smart selections every time.

Calories: Consider how the food fits into your daily calorie budget and compare with similar products. Grated Parmesan cheese is fairly high in calories, but if you're just sprinkling a tablespoon or two on your pasta, it's a calorie bargain (at 22 per tablespoon) based on its flavor infusion.

Fat: Experts say reasonable targets are 20 percent or less of total calories from fat and 10 percent or less of total calories from saturated fat.

Fiber: Three grams per serving or higher is a healthy amount to look for.

Serving size: Gauge if it's a reasonable-sized serving. Half a cup of granola (roughly 300 calories) may not be enough to satisfy you, so you'd be better off with a 1-1/2-cup serving of bran flakes (for 200 calories).

Sodium: Look for, at most, a 1:1 ratio of milligrams of sodium to calories in a serving (100 milligrams per 100 calories, for instance). "Sodium content can vary considerably even with similar products, such as deli turkey breast," says Janelle P. Gunn, MPH, RD, analyst for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So be sure to compare and contrast.

5 Phrase Face-Offs How some of the most confusing packaging terms stack up.

Organic vs. Made with Organic Ingredients

The former means at least 95 percent of a product's ingredients qualify as organic; the latter means at least 70 percent of the ingredients do.

Reduced Sugar vs. Low Sugar

The "reduced sugar" tag means a product has 25 percent less sugar than the regular version. By contrast, the "low sugar" label, which is often seen on jams and cookies, has—shockingly—no standard definition.

Whole Grain vs. Multigrain

The only way to know whether a product is 100% whole grain is if it's labeled as such. If a product bears a black-and-gold "Whole Grain" stamp—based on requirements from the Whole Grains Council—that's an indication the item is high in the good stuff, Caplan says. The "multi" label simply means that the product contains more than one grain. However, all of them could be refined (not whole).

Cage-Free vs. Free Range

These terms are not synonymous. "Cage-free" is something you usually see on egg cartons, and it means the hens were kept in a barn, not in cages. "But they still may have been in close quarters," Canfield says. A better bet, "free range" means the chickens had the opportunity to go outdoors whenever they wanted. "But that doesn't mean they were out in the sun high-fiving each other," Taub-Dix says. Their food and water were likely kept in the barn, so no one but the farmer knows how much time they actually spent outside.

Fat-Free vs. Zero Fat

No competition here. They mean the same thing—that the product contains less than .5 grams per serving. And if the serving sizes are small, your fat consumption will add up. "The fat-free claim fools everyone," Canfield explains. "It also doesn't tell you what kind of fat it is." The same standard applies to trans fats, which the Food and Drug Administration is working to significantly reduce in processed foods like frozen pizza and ready-to-use frosting. Until then, a product that claims to have 0 grams trans fat could actually have .5 grams per serving.

Did you know? The term "light" can have several completely different meanings. For bread, it may indicate fewer calories, Taub-Dix explains. "For sugar, it could mean lighter in color." With sodium, it typically means a lower amount, whereas "light" olive oil is typically lighter in flavor and texture, but not in calories. This is a good example of why it pays to be a savvy shopper!

GMO or No?

From coffee to cotton, advances in genetic engineering mean DNA from one species can be injected into another to create combinations that don't occur in nature. "Most soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance," says Taub Dix. But you'd never know it from looking at food packaging. And according to a Family Circle Facebook poll, 99 percent of you believe that should change. What's more, the long-term effects of consuming these foods aren't known, and neither is the full impact on the environment.

Ingredient Red Flags

"In general, the longer the list, the more processed the food," Canfield warns. You should also be aware that items are ordered by weight, so if sugar is first, the food contains a lot of it. And think twice before putting an item in your cart that contains any of the following ingredients.

• Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are sources of artery-clogging trans fats.

• Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and similar flavor enhancers can cause headaches and other unpleasant symptoms in those who are sensitive.

• Preservatives, like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), are possible carcinogens.

• Artificial colors are unnecessary and could cause adverse reactions.

• Caramel coloring, found mostly in breads and sodas, is now considered a possible carcinogen.

• Bleached flour is highly processed, not a whole grain.

To learn more, visit familycircle.com/gmo.

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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