How much do you really know about nutrition labels?
As countless new food products fight for our attention every time we shop for groceries, it’s natural to rely on the packaging to decide which items we should buy. But that’s not always the best idea. Many of those eye-catching nutritional promises you see are just thrown on labels to convince us that the item is healthy, even if it’s not. We looked into some of the more common claims to find out the difference between what phrases are helpful and what ones are misleading.
“Good source of…” or “High in…”
Food products can’t just claim to contain high levels of beneficial nutrients, like vitamin A or fiber, they have to meet a few conditions. To be considered “a good source of” a certain nutrient, a product must contain between 10 and 19 percent of its prescribed daily value. To be granted “high in” status, it must contain 20 percent or more of the daily value. This one claim doesn’t tell the whole story though, so scan the back label to make sure it isn’t super high in fat, calories or sodium.
Fortified vs. Enriched
Both of these terms are used to indicate that a product has had nutrients added to them. However, there is an important difference. In fortified products, nutrients are included in addition to those naturally occurring in the food to boost its nutritional value. This is a common practice with staples, like milk. In enriched products, the nutrients are added back into the food after being lost during the production process, meaning there is really no additional nutritional benefit.
Low Calorie/Low Fat
Ever wonder what actually makes a product low calorie or low fat? The US Food and Drug Administration provides specific definitions for each. A low calorie product must contain 40 or fewer calories per serving, while low fat products must contain three grams of fat or less per serving. These are not to be confused with reduced calorie and reduced fat items, which must contain at least 25 percent fewer calories or fat than standard alternatives. The catch there is that if the normal variety has 800 calories per serving, a reduced calorie option can still pack a whopping 600 calories.
This is one of the more closely regulated food claims out there, but there are a few different ways it can be used. If the label on a product reads “100 percent organic,” it’s made only with organically grown ingredients (produced with methods deemed to be good for the environment). Drop the “100 percent” qualifier, and the product must be made with at least 95 percent organically grown ingredients. Finally, products “containing organic ingredients” include at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Only products falling under the first two categories can display the well-known green and white Certified USDA Organic sticker.
This term means that a product is free of synthetic ingredients, like artificial sweeteners or colors. The problem is that there is no strict definition for what “natural” means. It could refer to an unadulterated ingredient, like pure fruit juice, but it may also reference a processed ingredient that originated from natural sources, like high-fructose corn syrup. Since there is no hard and fast rule, this term has become one of the most widely used health claims used on food packaging. To learn more about what makes up an “all natural” product, check the ingredient list.
Whole wheat bread must contain 100 percent whole wheat grains. Unfortunately, for other products, there’s no legal standard definition of whole grain content. As a result, items that have the term on their packaging can include a wide variety of levels of whole grain. To find out for sure, check to see if the packaging includes the term, “100 percent whole wheat.” Other terms like “wheat flour” and “enriched white flour” are commonly used but don’t really refer to whole wheat grain.
Photo credit: jpalinsad360