What's Really in Your Food
By Jessica DeCostole
The foods on supermarket shelves have more health information on their
labels than ever before — but that has only made it more confusing to figure
out what to buy. Read on to learn which nutritional claims you can trust and
which are pure hype.
With all of the health promises made on food packaging today ("100%
natural!" "0 grams trans fat!"), you'd think it'd be easier than
ever to eat right. But scan grocery store shelves to figure out what to buy,
and you're bound to feel frustrated. "There's so much information on
products that it can be challenging for the average consumer to figure out what
it all means," says Joan Salge Blake, R.D., a professor of nutrition at
Boston University. While the government does regulate these claims, what's key
to know is which labels represent truly useful health info and which are just
marketing pitches. Here, we read between the lines of the most common claims
you'll find on your food.
THE CLAIM: "Good source of fiber"
If a package bears the words good source of followed by the name of a
nutrient — such as fiber, protein, or calcium — then the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) mandates that the food must contain at least 10 percent of
the daily value of that nutrient. The same is true if the words plus or
extra appear before the name of a nutrient on packaging.
Bottom line: Foods that contain 10 percent of your daily value of an
important nutrient can give your diet a big boost, says Blake, especially if
that nutrient is fiber, which many women don't get enough of in their
THE CLAIM: "Made with whole grain"
This claim (or any other "made with..." claim, for that matter)
isn't defined by the government and therefore may not necessarily indicate a
significant source of that nutrient, says Blake.
Bottom line: If you want to eat more whole grains — which are high
in fiber and vitamins, among other things — look for the "Whole Grain"
stamp, developed by the Whole Grains Council. Not all whole-grain foods feature
a stamp, though, so check the ingredient list: If any grain is listed first,
prefaced by the word whole — whole grains, whole wheat, or whole oats,
say — then you know that food is made predominantly from whole grains.
THE CLAIM: "All natural"
Meat and poultry bearing the word natural contain no artificial
ingredients or colors and are minimally processed, as regulated by the United
States Department of Agriculture (USDA). But there are no such regulations for
other types of food. So manufacturers can call any food from milk to cheese
curls "natural," and there's no way to know whether it meets the same
Bottom line: When buying meat and poultry, you can trust the
natural label on the package. On other products, look for the USDA
Organic Seal, which guarantees that food consists of at least 95 percent
organically produced ingredients (that is, ingredients produced without
synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, irradiation, or