Remember the single serving boxes of circus-shaped animal crackers with a string handle? Late one night my dad pulled a box from our kitchen cupboard and ate a few. The next day he said to my mother, "Don't buy those anymore – they aren't very good." When she saw the box, Mom gasped and said, "Those aren't animal crackers. They're dog biscuits!" Our family still chuckles over this incident.
Why did my dad accidentally eat doggie treats? Because the box looked like animal crackers and he didn't read the label, which said "People Crackers...for dogs."
Do you ever buy or eat foods without reading the label? Do you assume that if a box looks familiar, you know what's inside? Instead of trusting that any packaged food is a nutritional bargain, try learning a little label lingo. Then scan the labels to make smarter choices in the supermarket.
There are three kinds of nutrition labels on most packaged foods:
1. Health claims
Manufacturers print health claims on the front of food packages to catch your attention. Boxes sport little seals with words like "excellent source of fiber" or "helps reduce cholesterol." The FDA has strict rules that define these claims.
But health claims are only part of the nutritional picture. Don't be fooled into depending solely on the front-of-box claims. Just because a food advertises "low fat" on the front doesn't mean it's totally healthy. It could be loaded with sugar, salt, or additives even though it contains little fat.
2. Ingredients list
This is essentially a recipe for the food, listing the ingredients in descending order by weight. In other words, ingredients at the beginning of the list are found in the largest amounts. The print might be tiny, so keep a small magnifying glass handy while shopping.
3. "Nutrition Facts" panel
In 1990 Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which required food packages to contain this panel. It provides statistics on key nutrients that effect health: calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. It also tells how many servings are in the package and what constitutes one serving.
To summarize, front-of-box health claims give you an "at-a-glance" idea of the healthfulness of the food. But the ingredients list and nutrition facts panel dish out the real scoop, so get in the habit of reading them.
Label lingo can help you:
1) Cut calories
Check the nutrition facts panel for the serving size and the number of servings per container first. One serving is not always the whole package. For example, bottled drinks, cans of soup, and small bags of snack foods often contain two servings. If the label says 150 calories per serving, but the bag contains two servings, you can accidentally double your calorie intake to 300 by eating the whole thing.
2) Judge the healthfulness of foods
The nutrition facts panel lists "% Daily Value" (% DV) for each nutrient. Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, the % DV tells how much of the daily requirement the food contains.
A general rule: 5% DV or less is low and 20% DV or more is high. Using this rule, we can evaluate the cereal in our sample label. One serving of cereal contains 5 grams of fiber, which is 20% of the Daily Value of 25 grams. So the cereal is considered "high in fiber." The cereal has only 2% DV for total fat, so it is considered a "low fat" food.
3) Get more key nutrients
Use the % DV guide to check the content of four key vitamins and minerals. The sample label shows the cereal is a good source of vitamin A and iron, providing 20% DV for each. It contains a moderate amount of calcium but no vitamin C.
4) Avoid trans fat
To find trans fat in a food, check BOTH labels. First, look at the nutrition facts panel to make sure it says "0 grams" for trans fat. However, since labeling laws allow foods that contain 0.5 grams or less of trans fat per serving to list it as zero grams, you must check further!
Turn to the ingredients list and look for "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils, which are trans fats. If there are none, then the food is truly trans fat free. If hydrogenated oils are listed, you will eat up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving of the food.
5) Find hidden sugar and salt
If you watch sugar or salt intake, always check the ingredients list. Watch for any ingredient that contains the word "sodium" like sodium phosphate or monosodium glutamate. You can also check the % DV for sodium.
Sugar is tricky, so read carefully. These words indicate sugar: high fructose corn syrup; molasses; honey; any word ending in "-ose" like dextrose or sucrose; and any word ending in "-itol" like sorbitol or xylitol, which are alcohol sugars.
6) Evaluate processed foods
Ingredient lists on processed foods often resemble a chemistry experiment. Some hard-to-pronounce terms are actually nutrients like vitamins and minerals, while others are preservatives, colorings, or additives like stabilizers or flavor enhancers.
Examples of vitamins and minerals:
ascorbic acid = vitamin C
cholecalciferol = vitamin D
thiamin, niacin, pyridoxine, riboflavin, biotin, folate = B vitamins
ferrous sulfate = iron
Examples of preservatives, additives, and colorings:
sodium nitrite, sulfur dioxide, BHA = preservatives
red 40 lake, yellow 5, blue 1 = colorings
guar gum, carnauba wax, MSG = additives
Preservatives are in there for a reason – to prevent food spoilage or growth of microorganisms during transport and storage. Colorings are just to make foods prettier. If you are concerned about any of these substances, consider skipping processed foods altogether. Instead, buy the individual ingredients and make it yourself.
7) Prevent symptoms of food sensitivity
If you have a food allergy or sensitivity, reading the ingredients label is critical to your health. Warnings about highly allergic ingredients like dairy, soy, wheat, peanuts, and tree nuts are often listed in bold print underneath the ingredients list to alert allergic consumers. But don't depend on that alert – read the whole ingredient list every time you buy the food because sometimes manufacturers change their ingredients.
The bottom line
Investing a few seconds in reading nutrition labels could pay big health dividends for you and your family. It also feels good to KNOW what you're eating. And who knows – checking labels just might save you from snacking on dog biscuits!
Sample label for breakfast cereal:
Serving Size ¾ cup
Amount per Serving
Calories 120 Calories from Fat 0
% Daily Value
Total Fat 1 g 2%
Saturated Fat 0 gm 0%
Cholesterol 0 mg 0%
Sodium 120 mg 5%
Total Carbohydrate 25 g 8%
Dietary Fiber 5 gm 20%
Sugars 5 g
Vitamin A 20% * Vitamin C 0%
Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs:
Calories 2000 2500
Total Fat Less than 65g 80g
Sat Fat Less than 20g 25g
Cholesterol Less than 300mg 300mg
Sodium Less than 2400mg 2400mg
Total Carbohydrate 300g 375g
Calories per gram:
Fat 9 * Carbohydrate 4 * Protein 4
Ingredients: rolled oats, wheat bran, corn meal, high fructose corn syrup, apples, honey, cinnamon, sodium chloride, calcium carbonate, ferrous sulfate, vitamin A acetate, niacin, thiamin, folate, riboflavin, natural flavors.