Decoding the Mystery of Food Labels

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I consider myself to be a conscientious label-reader at the grocery store. As a general rule of thumb, I don't buy products that contain a long list of ingredients with words I can't pronounce. If I have no clue what is in the product, I assume it's probably not the best thing to be putting into my body or serving to my family. But sometimes it's overwhelming and confusing. Companies do their best to convince us their products are good for us, even if they aren't. Do words like "all-natural" and "organic" mean "healthy"? Not necessarily.

The term "healthy" is regulated by the FDA. According to their standards, a product can be labeled as healthy if it "is low in fat and low in saturated fats and has no more than 360 to 480 milligrams of sodium or 60 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. And it must provide at least 10 percent of the daily value for vitamin A, vitamin C, protein, calcium, iron or fiber." So the product has to have some good stuff, but can also contain a little of the "bad" stuff in it to be considered healthy. And these requirements don't even mention guidelines for sugar. Even still, "healthy" is nothing more than a marketing claim aimed at convincing you to buy a particular product. Decide for yourself if the product is in fact healthy by reading the ingredients list and nutrition facts label.

The word "natural" is a different story, because the term is not regulated by the FDA. That means anyone can call their product natural (which sounds like it would be good for you), but that doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy. "Made with whole grains" is another term that sounds like a healthy choice. But manufacturers can use this claim even if they use the smallest amount of whole grains in the product and it really does nothing for your health. In this case, read the list of ingredients. If words like "whole-wheat flour" aren't first on the list, put the product back on the shelf. Here's a helpful hint: If the product label boasts "made with" a certain ingredient (real fruit, fruit juice, whole grains, etc.), chances are that there's very little of the good stuff in it at all. Only a quick read of the ingredients list can tell you just how wholesome it really is.

The term "organic" is also regulated by the FDA. But again, organic does not mean the product is any healthier (or lower in calories) than its non-organic counterpart. In fact, organic junk foods are everywhere, and foods labeled organic may lead you to overeat. An organic candy bar that's full of saturated fat and sugar is still a product to limit--not a health food.

It can be overwhelming when you first start paying attention to food labels at the grocery store. But the more you educate yourself, the easier it is to sift through the marketing hype. The Loopholes of Food Labeling is a good article to get you started.

Do you spend a lot of time reading labels? What kind of secrets have you discovered about foods you've considered buying?

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Q1: Do you spend a lot of time reading labels?
A1: Very little. If it has a label, that's a sign in 99% of the cases that you shouldn't buy it.

Q2: What kind of secrets have you discovered about foods you've considered buying?
A2: If it has a label, read it only for two things, and both must be present: USA as sole country of origin, and, certified organic. Report
I do read labels carefully, but don't buy much packaged food, and what I do buy is fairly unprocessed, such as cheese or yoghurt. It's scary what food manufacturers can put on labels to make you buy. Compare Multigrain Pringles with the regular kind. No more fiber, even though the label would want you to think there is something redeeming about this product. Report
Actually, I don't spend much time reading labels, since I eat fresh vegetables, fruit, and "real" food that doesn't come in packages. Think about it. Report
I do read the labels. I like to check the sodium, then the calories and the fat. If there is fat in the product and it is higher than I would like, I look to see if there is any protein in the product (at least 50% or more of the fat). A good example is peanut butter. It is a good fat because although it is relatively high in fat, the protein is also high. If a product is high in fat and little or no protein it goes back on the shelf. The only exception would be olive oil (and maybe avocados) because those are good fats as well. Report
am learning to read tem and see whats not good Report
Being A type 2 diabetic makes you realise how much stuff labelled and marketed as "Healthy" is anything but.
Why does all "Low fat" stuff seem to have a ton of sugar added instead?
Why are things labelled "No added sugar" but still have loads of artificial sweetners in them. Would it not be better to get over the sweet thing and move on? Report
I read the labels on everything I make for myself, and I try to find nutrition information on things I eat at a restaurant, but I admit I look mostly at the calories and the fat content/kinds of fat in the item, rather than unhealthy things like hydrogenated oils, lots of sugar, and a ton of chemical preservatives and flavor enhancers. This article is full of great information for people like myself who don't fully know what to look for on nutrition labels. Thanks!!! Report
Great information. Thanks! Report
Phosphates!! and many variations of, are found in tons of foods.
I read an article by a doctor who advised his lung cancer patients to avoid this.
I researched it further on the internet and there are not many studies done on this additive.
But saw where it caused cancer in rats.
Baking powder is nothing more than baking soda with phosphates.
It is in most baked goods and lots of food, salad dressing, even soda and deli meats, rotisserie, too!
It is a challenge to avoid it, along with all processed foods, as my father in law died of lung cancer and never smoked.
Along with nitrates, nitrites, one more thing to be aware of. Report
Some days, it feels like I'm spending more time reading the labels than I am shopping at the grocery store. If a new product is on sale, I'll read the label to see what's in it. I tend to do that a lot at regular grocery stores, but not places like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. I figure I'm safe with my choices at places like those.

So, what kinds of secrets have I discovered ? How many products are loaded with salt and sugar. It's insane how much of both are in sooooo many different products. It makes me glad that I do read labels religiously.

There is an issue going on right now about "natural" chicken, Apparently some manufactures are injecting the chicken with a salt solution to increase the water retention and taste of the meat. Currently the law allows this product be called "natural". I complained to my supermarket 7 years ago about this (I'm a heart patient, so sodium is one of the minerals I track regularly), but their attitude was "so what". How can we call chicken "natural" when it has been injected with a foreign substance?
I hear that Festival Foods grocery store now has a new rating for foods. They are rated 0-100. 100 being the most healthiest based on sugar-fat content and other info. I love this idea--it will make shopping so much easier than having to read all those labels & still not knowing. Hope other grocery chains follow suit. Report
This is nothing new .... 100% florida orange juice may actually be only 90% and still be 100% legal as congress MADE IT LEGAL. I agree with Trishaann56 - the fewer ingredients the better and if i don't understand it i don't buy it. Same method works for other purchases as well. Thank you for a thoughtful article. Hope you talk sometime about how the US Govt FDA ettes took over the Organic standards so that the regs for California and even Texas were LOWERED thanks to the FDA -- government in action !!! Report
Thanks for the article Report
I read labels alot more than I used to. I used to only look at the Kcal, fat, sodium, sugar and fiber. Now I have to look at what is actually in a product. Like the new one called inulin (a stealth fiber), carageenan found in puddings etc. What kind of sugars are in it since I cannot use the "fake sugars" or stevia. Report
I have been reading labels for years - I think my mom started reading them as soon as the nutritional labels were mandated. Since joining SP I've definitely refined that skill and my list of things that I look for (and don't want to consume) has gotten much longer. Report
When I read a food label the first thing I look at is the sodium content. Even some "lower sodium" foods can have 500 or 600 millgrams of sodium per serving! After that I look at the fats and cholesterol and if the food passes on these things, I go on and look at the ingredients. I know that the ingredient there's the most of will be listed first and that if an ingredient is very far down on the list it means that there's not very much of it in the product.

Paying close attention to what's really in the foods you eat can be hard work, but it definitely pays off in the long run. Report
Thanks for bringing this to "light". I've been reading food labels for years, and try not to buy junk stuff. Sometimes, though, I screw up and everytime I do, I kick myself for doing so. But, I know enough to get back up and start reading the labels again. Report
Good article. Report
I read labels! The first thing I look at is the ingredients. If there are a lot of ingredients, I cannot understand the words, it has become a science project that my body can skip. Then serving size. If the product looks funny at that point, I put it back on the shelf. I know right away they are playing games with me if the serving size is unrealistic. Then I look at fat, sodium and fiber. After years of doing this, it does not take very much time. I am noticing more people reading labels in the grocery store. I am not alone. Report
I definitely have become even more of a label reader since joining SP. I have been floored at the sodium content. Even thought I am not one to add salt to food, the content in some foods is astounding. I am also enjoying trying different products or combinations. Sometimes just because a food "sounds" healthy, it may have more calories or bad ingredients than a regular serving. Report
Something i registered dietitian taught me years ago was to not just look at fat and calories, but at the ratio of them. If the fat calories are more than 25% of the total calories, put it back.
I also look for ingredients that I can't pronounce easily, and/or don't know why the ingredient is in the product...those typically go back too. Report
I read the calories then the sodium then I throw the package back before reading more because it is usually too high in these two catagories I check fiber too... if it passes this far then I read ingredients. Report
Things I look for on a label...serving size, calories, sugar, salt, fiber, all the 'fats', and protein. I look at the list of ingredients...the fewer, the better. Report
I want all the ingredients to be 'real' things, specific (no 'natural flavors' or 'natural colors'), short list, in English, and (ideally) the principal ingredients specified as being 'organic,' too.

{I LIKE 'fair-trade' to be there, but that's not a regulated term, either, I believe, so I have to trust my natural foods store to deal with reputable sources concerned for the quality of life of the supplier.}

And, unlike a pp., I do keep reading labels even of old standbys; the manufacturers can make fairly substantial changes without announcing it. Report
I bought some "whole wheat bread" and then read the ingredients list after I got home. The second or third ingredient was "high fructose corn syrup"!!! I was mad!!! :( Report
I've learned that whole wheat is not the same as 100% whole wheat and natural doesn't mean organic. Report
That is so true! I have found that food in its most natural form is the best way to go. Many of the expensive "health" food breads have the same contents as the cheaper priced whole wheat or whole grain bread. You only pay for the name and it is no more healthy for you than the store brand. Report
I have gluten allergies so I have to read labels of products carefully. But I did read labels more for fat and calorie content before my allergies were diagnosed. Report
My husband has a soy allergy/sensitivity so I have to check everything I buy for "soy". Report
I tend to buy the same foods so I don't need to read the labels now, because I buy the right products. You have to watch for hidden sugars and fillers. Report
Organics may lead us to overeat??? Sorry, that's bunk.

Good stewardship of the land, helping small farmers and preventing dangerous pesticide and herbicide contamination in our environment is the point of organics.

I think there is nothing organic about something that came from a long way away and has a lot of sugar and packaging around it. But those things are topics for another debate.

To suggest that the word "Organic" alone would somehow cause someone to overeat is pretty ridiculous and ignores all the processed junk out there (which can hardly be called food) which is mainly responsible for the pandemic of obesity in America.

Please lay blame where it belongs, not on a straw man. Report
We eat as much food in it's original state as possible. There is very little processed food in our house any more. After reading "In Defense of Food", my husband and I decided that we didn't want to be putting all those chemicals in our or our children's bodies. We have a garden and try to can a lot of our own foods and get as much meat locally as possible. Reading labels is quite an eye opener. Report
I just saw the Today program on NBC and they discussed this very subject this morning. They said basically the same thing. Thanks for bringing this up. Report
The whole wheat issue is annoying - 100% whole wheat for me. I also watch out for "natural flavors" - I've read that this is often means added MSG. The only MSG I want is the kind from my soy sauce that comes from the fermentation.

Thanks for reminding us of the trickiness of labels. Report
I always read labels on the food I buy! I try to eat as little processed food as possible, so thats one headache label I don't have to worry about any more. Report
Reading the labels is important to me I need to know what is in everything I buy. Report
I definitely read labels. If it says "partially hydrogenated oil" it goes right back on the shelf. I also look for sugars of all varieties and the word "enriched". If it says enriched it is not a whole grain. I concentrate on the first five ingredients, but the fewer ingredients the better. Report
My biggest pet peeve with reading labels is what is missing regarding fat calories. I believe every label should state the PERCENTAGE of calories that are from fat calories. To maintain a lower fat diet, one wants to keep in the range of 30% of their daily intake of calories from fat. However, you cannot know what percentage is from fat unless you do the math. Okay, sometimes it's pretty easy. For example, I recently picked up a bottle of "lite" salad dressing that was 90 calories and the fat calories were 90. Hmmm, 100% from fat calories, doesn't sound lite to me. However, when there is a label that shows a serving is 275 calories and of that fat calories are 75 (27%), well it takes a little more thought. I can do the math without any problem, but I know a lot of people are math phobic. Report
Wow the labels are CRAZY! You need a list of scientific names for everything!! I will be glad when I won't need to look sooooo much stuff up! BUT no matter how long it takes to get through the isles in the store I WILL do it!!!! Report
The fewer ingredients the better, and if I can pronounce all of them even better. Report
I read food labels too. I pay close attention to the amount of sugar in foods. Report
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