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 diet.
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 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.
THE CLAIM: "Probiotic cultures"
Probiotics — healthy bacteria that keep harmful bacteria at bay in your digestive tract — have been linked in studies with improving gastrointestinal health and boosting immunity. But the FDA hasn't set standards for probiotics, so there's no way to know for sure that there's live, active bacteria in the yogurt or other products you see labeled with that word — let alone enough bacteria to offer these benefits.
- Bottom line: Make sure you're getting live bacteria by buying yogurts such as Yoplait or Stonyfield that carry the National Yogurt Association Live & Active Cultures seal or have the words contains live and active cultures on the label. Whether or not you get enough cultures to reap the purported perks, you're still eating a food that's high in protein and calcium — crucial nutrients, especially for women.
THE CLAIM: "Contains omega-3s"
When a package bears the word contains before any nutrient, the food must contain at least 10 percent of the daily value of that nutrient per serving, says Blake. When it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, it's also important to know which type of omega-3 the food contains. DHA and EPA — the omega-3 fats found in fish — are the ones most commonly linked to a lower risk of heart disease.
Bottom line: You can trust any contains claims. If a food doesn't specify which omega-3 it offers, check the ingredient list.
Originally published on July 9, 2008
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