Just the Facts, Ma’am—Understanding Food Labels
With all of the different food items on the market today, it can get difficult to choose one thing over another. We wonder about the claims on the package, like all-natural, multigrain, lightly sweetened, heart healthy. What does it all mean? Have you ever just stood in the grocery store aisle staring at the boxes, scratching your head, and saying to yourself, “I have no idea which is the best one, which is the healthiest! What should I get?” Well, you’re not alone, the Neilsen group found that 42% of US consumers don’t feel they really understand food packaging labels!
Today I’m going over food packaging labels, the rules, front of the package, what things really mean, Nutrition Facts information, and changes coming January 2020. And I’ll give you an easy step-by-step process to help you wade through all the claims and advertising to choose the best option for you and your family.
Regulation of Food Labeling
Nutrition labeling on food packaging didn’t really come about until the 1970s, when processed foods started flooding grocery store shelves, many with health claims on the package. In 1972 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed requiring food labeling regulations (at that time they did not have authority to require or mandate) for any food with nutritional claims or added nutrients, but voluntary for those items that did not. It wasn’t until 1990 that Congress gave the FDA authority to mandate food labeling requirements through the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which went into effect in 1993.
The FDA has the responsibility of regulating nutrition labels on food packaging in the US, but realize that the food industry and lobbyists have a huge impact on their decision on what to require or not. In addition, daily values on food labeling are based upon the USDA Dietary Guidelines, also highly influenced by food industry lobbyists.
Front of the Package Labeling
Nutritional claims and labels on the front of food packages have been an issue for decades. It is actually what prompted NLEA in the 1990s and what also instigated upcoming Nutrition Facts labeling changes. The FDA reviews all claims on food packaging that state an item contributes to a specific health benefit, and they are only allowed under strict guidelines. Specifically, health claims:
- must contain the elements of a substance and a disease or health-related condition;
- are limited to claims about disease risk reduction;
- cannot be claims about the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, or treatment of disease; and
- are required to be reviewed and evaluated by FDA prior to use.
The FDA authorizes only 12 health claims for food, such as: eating a diet low in fat may reduce your risk of cancer; diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain some types of dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, may reduce the risk of heart disease, a disease associated with many factors; etc. Realize that many of these health claims may be biased due to industry influences or even out of date with current research. You can read the the specifics of all 12 health claims authorized by the FDA on their website.
However, there are a lot of non-health-claim terms and wording used on food packaging that causes confusion and may be misleading to consumers, some regulated by the FDA and some not.
Confusing Terms and Words on Front of Food Packaging
Reduced-, Low-, and -Free, Fat and Cholesterol, Including Trans Fat
Reduced-fat: At least 25% less fat per package than the comparison product (doesn’t mean it is a low-fat food, just less than regular).
Low-fat: 3g or less of fat per serving.
Low-saturated fat: 1g or less of saturated fat per serving, with no more than 15% of the calories coming from saturated fat.
Low-cholesterol: 20mg or less of cholesterol per serving or 2g or less of saturated fat per serving.
Food can be labeled Trans Fat Free if it contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving! So how do you know whether the food you’re looking at actually contains trans fat? Look at the ingredients list. Examples of trans fats include:
- hydrogenated vegetable oil
- partially hydrogenated oils
- conjugated linoleic acid
- vaccenic acid
- some soybean and canola oils
The best way to avoid trans fats, cholesterol and other fats in general is to not purchase foods with any added oils (check the ingredient list), including lard (manteca), coconut, or other vegetable oils/shortenings.
Low-Calorie or Calorie-Free, Reduced, Light/Lite
Calorie-free: Less than 5 calories per serving.
Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.
Reduced: Product has been changed to contain at least 25% less calories than the comparable item. It doesn’t mean it is a healthy food, just that it has less calories or fat than the comparable item.
Light/Lite: Product has been changed so it contains either one-third fewer calories or no more than half the fat of the regular version of this food or if it gets 50% or more of its calories from fat, then it must have half the fat of the regular version. It doesn’t mean it is a healthy food, just that it has less calories or fat than a comparable item.
Multigrain, Made with Whole Grain
This causes a lot of confusion because it sounds like something really healthy! But most of the time it’s not.
Multigrain simply means something is made up of multiple grain types, for example wheat and oats, and they can be refined, enriched, or even whole grain. Most of the time, though, it’s just made of multiple refined grains, not health-promoting whole grains.
What is a refined grain? It’s a whole grain that’s been stripped of healthy fiber-rich bran and nutrient-rich germ, leaving the starchy endosperm. To make up for the nutrition lost from removing the bran and germ, refined grains are often “enriched” by adding back isolated vitamins and minerals to make up for things that were taken out—enriched refined grains are not a healthy alternative to whole grains. These additives do not substitute well for the nutrients originally in the whole grain and don’t add any fiber.
Made with Whole Grain just means there is at least some whole grain in the product, not that it is made entirely of whole grains.
Check the ingredients list and choose products made with 100% whole grains, avoiding refined or enriched grains.
Sugar-free, No Sugar Added
Like trans fats, products can be labeled sugar-free if they contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. Check the ingredients list and make sure there is no added sugar in the product. They may also contain artificial sweeteners, which are not health-promoting, although pure stevia is ok.
No sugar added means no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient that substitutes for added sugars were used in processing or packaging. Artificial sweeteners may be used in these products.
To look like there’s less sugar in a product, manufacturers often use several different types of sweeteners. This keeps the ingredient “sugar” from showing up near the top of the ingredient list as a major ingredient. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so using many different types of added sweeteners spreads them out throughout the ingredients list, making the product look healthier. Always default to looking completely through the ingredients list.
According to the University of California San Francisco, there are 61 names for added sugar used in product ingredients! I actually think there’s more, such as brown rice syrup and raisin juice.
Made with Fruit Juice
Doesn’t this sound healthy? Well as we read in the last section, fruit juice can be used as a sweetener, such as raisin juice, fruit juice concentrate, etc. Additionally, items labeled “100% fruit juice” can contain juices made from fruit concentrates and/or concentrated flavorings made from juice. Any preservatives or additives added to the juice are not factored in the overall percentage of fruit juice in the final product.
Better alternative? Eat the fruit or juice it yourself.
No Artificial Colors/Flavorings
While we want to stay away from artificial flavors and colors, natural flavors and colors can be misleading as well.
By FDA regulation, natural flavor or natural flavoring is a “substance derived from essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
But being natural doesn’t always mean it came from the natural source we think it came from. While we generally think that natural berry flavor comes from real berries, it can come from the natural fluid expressed from a beaver’s anal gland, a substance called castoreum.
As defined by the FDA, a color additive is any dye, pigment, or other substance that can impart color to a food. Like flavorings, they can be extracted from artificial or natural sources, and be highly processed. Natural sources may not come from sources you’d expect, such as “natural red 4,” that is extracted from the shell of the cochineal insect.
The label of no artificial or all-natural ingredients does not automatically relate to non-refined, unprocessed ingredients. It’s best to avoid products with added natural and artificial flavors and colors in the ingredients list.
The organic label does not mean something is unrefined, not highly processed, or inherently “healthier” than other products. And it isn’t even a label regulated by the FDA—it’s regulated by the USDA. The organic label simply means that product complies with the USDA’s National Organic Program regulations and can be highly processed and refined. Learn more about organic labeling in my post, Should I Buy Organic?
This label is regulated by the FDA, although it is voluntary for manufacturers to label their products as gluten-free, not required. To be labeled gluten-free, the food product must:
- Be inherently gluten-free, meaning does NOT contain wheat, rye, barley, or their crossbred hybrids like triticale (a gluten-containing grain) OR
- NOT contain an ingredient that is derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or
- NOT contain an ingredient derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food
Not all foods are covered under this voluntary rule. These items aren’t covered under the gluten-free rules:
- Meat, poultry, and unshelled eggs (and any other products regulated by the USDA)
- Distilled spirits and wines that contain 7% or more alcohol by volume
- Malted beverages made with malted barley or hops
Do note, that gluten-free does not mean unrefined, unprocessed, or whole grain! Products labeled gluten-free can be just as unhealthy as gluten-containing foods. And they may not be vegan, either. So check the ingredients list.
Sodium can be a very tricky thing on package labels. Reduced or light/lite sodium products may still be very high in salt or sodium. Here’s how the FDA defines the following terms:
Reduced sodium: At least 25% less sodium per package than the comparison product (doesn’t mean it is a low-sodium food, just less than regular).
Light in sodium or “lightly salted”: At least 50% less sodium per package than the comparison product (doesn’t mean it is a low-sodium food, just less than regular).
Low-sodium: 140mg or less per serving.
Very low sodium: 35 mg or less per serving.
Sodium-free: Less than 5mg of sodium per serving.
No salt added or unsalted: No salt/sodium added during processing, but may still contain salt/sodium unless specifically noted.
To avoid added sodium/salt, avoid purchasing processed foods, or choose items that are low-, very low-, sodium-free, or no salt added rather than reduced or light sodium foods. You can also rinse foods like canned vegetable or beans to remove salt in the packaging solution coating the contents.
Ok, is your head swimming with all these descriptions with their different weights, measures, and percentages? Mine too! They are extremely hard to keep track of and often don’t really mean what we think they do. So it’s just best to ignore these front of the package claims (except in the case of gluten-free if you are gluten-sensitive or allergic) and move on to the side or back for the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list.
Back/Side of the Package & Nutrition Facts Label
This is the current Nutrition Facts label required to be on nearly all packaged food products sold in the US. It has been relatively unchanged since regulations went into effect in 1993, other than the 1999 addition of Trans Fat. However, due to some controversy created by front of packaging claims and labeling by multiple non-profits, academic groups, and other organizations over the past several years, coming to a head in 2009, Congress mandated a review on product labeling. After years of review, new product labeling goes into effect as follows:
- January 1, 2020 for manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual sales
- July 1, 2020 for manufacturers of certain flavored dried cranberries
- January 1, 2021 for manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales
- July 1, 2021 for manufacturers of most single-ingredient sugars such as honey and maple syrup and certain cranberry products
If you’ve ever questioned the power of industrial lobbying on government regulation of our food and dietary guidelines…that’s a great illustration!
Here’s what’s changing and what’s staying the same:
Many of the changes to the Nutrition Facts label are purely cosmetic, with increased font sizes, etc. But there are some important changes to be aware of.
Serving sizes have not been reflective of how people actually eat today. Average serving sizes have been figured on how much as person aged four-years-old and older typically eats at a sitting. For example, a serving of ice cream was a single ½ cup scoop, and how many people do you know eat a single scoop of ice cream, let alone that small? The new Nutrition Facts label is working to right-size that.
However…it’s still based upon someone 4-years-old and up and doesn’t quite match how Americans really eat (read complete FDA guidelines on serving sizes here). Ice cream serving sizes have increased, but only to a single ⅔ cup scoop—still far from what people typically consume. And it’s not just ice cream, many different types of foods were adjusted. So make sure to really check how much your eating and adjust the math accordingly.
The Daily Values on the Nutrition Facts label are now only calculated on a 2,000 calorie a day diet rather than having a confusing footnote on how to adjust between 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day.
I think this is the best change on the whole label! Manufacturers are now required to list how much sugar was added to the product, per serving. No more guessing if your can of tomato paste has 3g of sugar from the tomatoes themselves or sugar added during the processing. And this includes most of the added sugars listed above, not just “table sugar.”
Do note, however, fruit purees and fruit juices added for sweetness may not show up in the added sugar column. So it’s always smart to check the ingredients list. See the image below, the concentrated apple puree is most likely added for additional sweetness but not listed as an added sugar.
The FDA removed Vitamins A and C and added Vitamin D and Potassium as nutrients required to be listed, as they felt they were more important to the consumer.
How to Choose the Best Option Using Nutrition Facts and Ingredients
You don’t want to spend hours and hours in the grocery store, so what are just the facts you need to select the best option while picking out your groceries? Here are the highlighted areas to pay attention to for making an informed choice:
Easy 5-step Process
You only need 5 steps to pick out healthier packaged groceries:
- Ignore the front of the box, other than the name of the product or gluten content, if applicable.
- Look at the ingredients list first! Ignore everything else right now.
- Look for the fewest ingredients.
- Avoid added fats, sugars (search for multiple sources), animal-based products (check here for info on hidden animal products), added flavors and colors.
- Look for 100% whole grains, avoid refined or enriched grains
- Avoid any applicable allergens
- Double-check 0g Trans Fat (you shouldn’t have any trans fats if there weren’t any added oils in the ingredients list.
- Ensure 0g Added Sugars, or as close as you can find.
- Note: Many minimally-processed cereals and plant milks may contain small amounts of natural and added sugars. This is ok if it doesn’t represent a significant part of the product’s overall calories or in your daily diet. Look for the product with the least amount per serving.
- Calculate Dietary Fiber ratio.
- Divide Total Carbohydrate (in grams) by grams of Dietary Fiber. You want this number to be 5 or less.
What’s this Fiber ratio all about?
Even though the new Nutrition Facts label isn’t required until January 2020, this is something you can start right now! Many products have already switched to the new label and even if they haven’t, you should be able to catch added sugars in Step 2 when scanning the ingredients, even without the new added sugar line.
So be confused no more! Now that you know how food manufacturers work to make their foods look healthier on the front of the package, you’ll quickly bypass their claims and get straight to the facts. Everything you need to know is on the side or back of the package, in the Nutrition Facts and ingredients list. And use the 5 Simple Steps for Healthy Groceries to select the best, healthiest, option.
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Cindy wants you to be Trimazing—three times better than amazing! After improving her health and fitness through plant-based nutrition, losing 60 pounds and becoming an adult-onset athlete, she retired from her 20-year firefighting career to help people just like you. She works with people and organizations so they can reach their health and wellness goals.
Cindy Thompson is a certified Health Coach, Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, and Firefighter Peer Fitness Trainer. She is a Food for Life Instructor with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Rouxbe Plant-Based Professional, and Harvard Medical School Culinary Coach, teaching people how to prepare delicious, satisfying, and health-promoting meals.
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