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What's Really in Your Food

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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 standards.

  • 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 biotechnology).

THE CLAIM: "0 grams trans fat"

The FDA defines "zero grams" as 0.4 grams or less. So the potato chips that tout "0 grams of trans fat" may hold up to 0.4 grams per serving — and even a small bag of chips can contain several servings. "If you only have one serving, it may not be a big deal, but most of us eat more than one, so the trans fat can add up quickly," says Blake.

  • Bottom line: To determine whether a product actually contains some trans fat, scan the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oil or shortening — these are just fancy words for trans fat.

THE CLAIM: "May help reduce the risk of heart disease" or "Heart-healthy"

Any claim that mentions a disease is backed by the FDA, meaning that the manufacturer has provided evidence to support that statement. A "heart-healthy" symbol indicates that the food has passed the American Heart Association's certification program, requiring that it contain no more than 1 gram of saturated fat and 20 grams of cholesterol per serving.

  • Bottom line: Seek out the "heart-healthy" symbol. And if a claim names a disease, know that there's some scientific proof to back it up.

THE CLAIM: "Calcium helps build strong bones"

This is an example of what's called a structure/function claim. "These are confusing, because they aren't really about the food," says Blake. The FDA requires that claims describing the effect of a nutrient on the body — such as "fiber lowers cholesterol" — be truthful, but these claims don't guarantee that the food contains any particular amount of that nutrient. So while it's true that calcium does build strong bones, for instance, that claim could appear on a chocolate bar — which has calcium from milk, sure, but may have much more sugar and fat, making it less healthful than other calcium-rich foods, like yogurt.

  • Bottom line: Ignore functional claims altogether.

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