Most of us find nutritional labels and claims confusing and difficult to decipher, surveys actually show that people find them unhelpful. Over the past few years more and more companies are making a slurry of claims on their packages, some which matter and other that may be irrelevant and almost misleading, but ultimately it’s important to know what it all means in order to make the right decisions on what to buy. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:
Types of Claims
1. Nutrient Content Claims: These are the claims that state whether a a product is a good or excellent source of something, or whether it’s a “light” version. A “good” source of a nutrient is one that has between 10-19% of the daily recommended value of a (DV) nutrient and an “excellent” or “high” source is one that provides at least 20% of the DV. For example, the FDA recommends 25 grams of fiber per day for adults, so any product with 2.5 grams can claim to be a good source, but that hardly means that you have come close to meeting your daily requirement. A good source is better than zero, but keep in mind that it can be as little as 10% of your DV.
A reference to “light” means it must have fewer calories or less fat than a representative product and the company must explain by how much, for example, “this light pizza has 1/3 fewer calories than our regular pizza”. If the regular pizza has 750 calories, this “light” version still contains 525 calories, not exactly a light snack or meal. It also doesn’t explain the fat content, which may still be very high.
2. Health Claims: These are claims that state that the presence of a certain nutrient in the product can reduce the risk of a disease, like the claim on some oatmeal packages that the fiber may reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. These claims must be approved by the FDA and require a high level of scientific evidence. However, some companies take it too far. Cheerios made a claim that it could lower cholesterol by 4% in 4-6 weeks and the regulators asked them to remove it. Dannon was also asked to remove its claims from Activia and DanActive which implied their products could ensure “regularity” and a “stronger immune system”. While some of these claims may be true, others are far fetched, so if seems too good to be true, it probably is.
3. Qualified Health Claims: These claims have less supporting evidence than Health Claims and must state so, for example, “supportive, but not conclusive research shows….” These claims have limited supportive evidence, so take them with an even larger grain of salt.
4. Misleading Claims: These claims are factual, though can be misleading, such as a product claiming to have 0 trans fat, but being loaded with saturated fat, or a product claiming to be made with “whole wheat” yet has little to no fiber.
So how can you navigate these murky waters and make the best choices, here are a few tips:
- Don’t take any claims at face value, read the ingredients and the nutrition label.
- Be aware of how many servings are in the package. This is a common mistake with beverages, where a 16oz bottle has 2-2.5 servings, more than doubling the calories and sugar listed on the label.
- Ingredients are listed in order of prevalence in the product with the first 2-3 ingredients being most important, so pay the most attention to those. If you pick up a loaf of whole wheat bread and the “whole wheat” is the third or fourth ingredient after enriched wheat flour, it’s probably not the best whole wheat bread. Similarly, if high fructose corn syrup or brown rice syrup is the first ingredient, there may be better options.
- Same is true for whole grain products, if it claims to have whole grains, then you should see whole oats, brown rice, or any whole grain as one of the first two ingredients.
- Pay close attentions to the claim “made with real fruit”, which can mean the product contains only fruit juice concentrate, yet have lovely pictures of fruit all over the package. This is particularly true in products marketed at children.
- The words “natural” or “organic” don’t necessarily mean healthy. Natural simply means all of the ingredients are derived from a natural source, for example, high fructose corn syrup is considered all natural because it is derived from corn, yet it is not a healthy ingredient. Same is true for “organic”, which can be filled with sugar and fat, yet be made with organic ingredients. The term “natural” is loosely regulated by the FDA, “organic” requires approval.
- Pay attention to the nutrient panels and the percentages, particularly calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar. Most of those have a Daily Value % next to it in order to give you an idea of how much you are consuming (based on a 2000 calorie diet), but sugar does not. When it comes to sugar, there are a couple of things to keep in mind: 1. one teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams, so if you are eating a granola bar with 20 grams of sugar, that is 5 teaspoons of sugar (some may be naturally occurring, such as from raisins, some may be added), 2. compare the grams of sugar to the weight of the product, ie. if that same granola bar weighs 40 grams (always labelled on the bottom right of a package), then HALF of the bar is sugar.
Hope this helps you decipher the not so transparent world of food labels.