Decoding the Food Label

A registered dietitian's guide on how to properly read and understand food labels.

food label image

Food label image via shutterstock

The standard food package is cluttered. There are important messages—all fighting for your attention—pasted in the corners of the label. Advertisements, checkmarks, calories, and detailed nutrition facts are aimed to influence your purchasing behavior, but most labels are confusing and overwhelming. Don’t let the label get the best of you. Use this guide to know what to look for, what it all means, and how to make the best decision based on the contents of the package (and not just the labels themselves).

American Heart Association Heart-Check:
This label is found on hundreds of products in grocery stores and can also be found on restaurant menus for meals that meet the defined requirements. If you’re purchasing a food with the Heart-Check, you can expect that product to have less than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving (or no more than 15 percent of calories from saturated fat) and also less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Additionally, the product must have 480 milligrams of sodium or less per serving. More details can be found here.

Starting in January 2014, the American Heart Association will add more requirements for foods displaying the Heart-Check. The new requirements include a minimum amount of fiber per serving in grain-based products, a limit of 20 grams of sugar per six ounces of yogurt, and the total elimination of products containing partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat).

Bottom line: The American Heart Association guidelines for the Heart-Check is a good place to start when choosing healthier products.

Whole Grain Council Stamp:
The Whole Grain Council has two stamps for products to display on their label: the basic stamp and the 100 percent stamp. The basic can be displayed if the product has at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving. Products with the basic stamp may also contain refined grains as long as the minimum 8 grams of whole grain per serving is met. The 100 percent stamp can be displayed if all the grains in the product are whole grains. The minimum is 16 grams of whole grains per serving for the products with the 100 percent stamp.

The Whole Grain Council’s stamp came under fire this year when a telling study on the products displaying the seal found that many are of poor nutritional quality despite being considered “whole grain.” Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health found that while many products with the stamp were high in fiber when compared to other products, they were also higher in sugar and calories than those without the stamp.

Bottom line: Don’t ignore the nutrition facts panel when buying products with the whole grain stamp. Look for those without added sugars and partially hydrogenated oils. Click here to familiarize yourself with common whole grains so that you’re knowledgeable enough to buy whole grain products with or without the seal.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates organic products through the National Organic Program. All products with the organic seal must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. According to the USDA, products considered organic must not be produced with, “synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering.” Remember, just because a product says it is organic, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is better for you. Read the nutrition facts panel for details about the nutritional content of the product.

Bottom line: If you’re concerned about natural ingredients, use of hormones, genetic engineering, or use of synthetic fertilizers then this seal provides an important guide for your food purchases.

This tricky word has made its way to hundreds of food packages on store shelves today. Unfortunately, there isn’t a definition for the term natural unless it’s a meat, poultry, or egg product. The USDA has defined the term natural on these products as being minimally processed and without artificial ingredients. However, if the product doesn’t contain meat or eggs then the term natural remains undefined. The FDA website says:

“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

This description leaves lots of room for interpretation by food manufacturers. And considering that the term natural often comes with a “health halo” effect, the word can be used as a powerful marketing tool.

Bottom line: Don’t let the term “natural” influence your purchases. Instead read the ingredient list for a clearer picture of what’s really in the product. If you’re concerned about natural ingredients in what you’re buying then you’re probably better off to choose organic over foods labeled as “natural.”

Low-Fat and Fat-Free:
Both terms are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Any product with low-fat on the label must have 3 grams of fat or less per serving. Fat-free products may have no more than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. These labels are straight-forward and simple.

Bottom line: The terms are regulated and clearly defined making them a trust-worthy source of information on the food label.

No Sugar Added and Sugar Free:
When a product is labeled as sugar-free, it must have 0.5 grams of sugar or less per serving. No sugar added, however, is different. The FDA defines the term “no sugar added” as having no sugars added during processing of the product. A common example is juice products. Many 100 percent juice products will have the “no sugar added” phrase to indicate that the juice wasn’t sweetened during processing.

Bottom line: Both labels are clearly defined, but continue to check the ingredient list for additional details especially if you’re limiting sugar substitutes like sucralose or aspartame.

Zero Grams Trans Fat:
This label has garnered attention lately with the FDA proposing a ban on partially hydrogenated oils in all products. Currently, the label ‘zero grams of trans fat’ can be displayed on a product if it contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. This is confusing for many who are trying to avoid trans fat completely since you can eat a product that displays ‘zero grams of trans fat’ on the label, but still has small amounts of the unhealthy fat.

Bottom line: Keep an eye out for the official ruling from the FDA on the ban of trans fat, but until then, check the ingredient list and avoid products with partially hydrogenated oils.