By now, you probably have the basics of a healthy diet memorized (macronutrients, eating enough vegetables, and meal prepping a balanced meal). And yet, applying that knowledge while grocery shopping can still be quite confusing. With a bevy of labels and claims hitting the shelves, it’s hard to keep track of what everything means. To clear things up, we asked three experts for help. They explain nutrition labels and the most common food certifications. Read on as we break it down.
The most notable portion of any food or drink packaging is the nutrition label. Yet, for all its importance, it’s also the hardest to understand. “Many of these things are hard to put into plain language and understand. You have to sort of figure it out,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, M.A., R.D., C.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table. “But, to use an expression I like, the label on the package is supposed to be like the table of contents of a book, meaning that it’s supposed to tell you what’s inside.” The nutrition facts give you information on serving size, daily values, macronutrient values, nutrients, and more. This panel can be puzzling upon first glance. But with some explanations, it becomes much easier to follow.
Serving size is a portion of the nutrition label that often goes unseen or ignored. This is especially true when it’s broken down into grams and ounces. Nonetheless, it’s an important thing to pay attention to (hello, mindless snacking). Serving size is the recommended portion of a food you should eat. Typically the label will tell you what that amount is and how many are in the container. “Serving size and servings per container are important to focus on. If you’re digging into a box of cookies after just reading the calories, you may consume several servings before you know it. Manufacturers often make the serving size very small to keep the calorie count down, so you’ll buy their product,” explains Dr. Charles Passler, creator of Pure Change and nutritionist to the likes of Victoria’s Secret models.
Luckily, many nutrition labels are undergoing a change. “A lot of packages that could be consumed in one sitting, like a 20-ounce soda, have a newer label on it that not only tells you what one serving is, but also the calories of the whole container. You’ll find this on bags of pretzels, for example, or other snack foods,” Taub-Dix notes. This change, as well as a slew of others, will be reflected on all nutrition labels by early 2020 or early 2021 (depending on company size), says the FDA.
We’ve touched on the importance of healthy fats in your diet. What’s equally essential is understanding the different types of fats listed on the foods you buy. “On the nutrition label, fat is broken down in three ways: total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat,” explains Dr. Candice Seti, certified nutrition coach, personal trainer, and creator of The Weight Loss Therapist.
“Saturated fat is not necessarily a bad thing. But you also don’t want to go overboard,” she notes. Scientifically, these are simply fats that don’t have double bonds. You can find them in dairy foods, meat, and lard. While some consumption isn’t going to hurt you, it’s important to watch how much you eat.
On the other hand, there are trans fats. “These are basically vegetable oils that have added hydrogen molecules to change them from a liquid to a solid and ultimately create a longer shelf life—ever wonder why Twinkies last forever?,” Seti says. “The problem is that this altered state is hard for the body to break down. So it just hangs out in our fat tissues and actually prevents us from using other proteins and fats. As a result, trans fats are ultimately linked to increased ‘bad’ cholesterol, heart disease, increased inflammation, metabolic disease, arthritis, diabetes, and stroke.” Because of these links, it’s important to check your labels before purchasing and eating. Scan the ingredients list for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” as well, as those are trans fats.
When eyeing the nutrition label, you’re probably stopped by the sudden inclusion of percentages. These are used to measure the vitamins and minerals in each product. “Important nutrients are measured as ‘percentage of daily value,’ not in gram or milligram amounts,” Passler explains. “For the most part, the daily value is more concerned with serious disease prevention than creating optimal health.”
These values are recommended per day for Americans over the age of 4. But, Passler warns that the numbers are extremely outdated. In fact, they were set in the 1960s. Because of this, it’s better (and less confusing) to simply include nutrient-rich foods in your diet, such as blueberries, potatoes, and even dark chocolate. Just don’t overdo it on that last one.
The ingredients list may look straightforward, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. While it includes the ingredients in every food or drink package, it neglects to specify certain things. For example, Taub-Dix points out that current nutrition labels don’t differentiate between natural and added sugars. Similar ingredients aren’t distinguished but will be once the newer labels go into effect in 2020 and 2021.
Likewise, ingredient lists don’t specify how much of each component is in the food. Instead, they’re listed from greatest to least in terms of amount. “The amounts of each are never listed, but the order they are listed in can give you better insight into their amounts,” Passler says. “Remember, the ingredients with the highest weight are listed first, and the ones with the smallest are farther down on the list. For example, if you’re trying to be carb conscious and the first ingredient is some form of sugar, you may want to reconsider buying that product.”
“Food labels are basically any claim made on a food product, from hard-core facts regulated by government agencies—FDA, USDA—to promotional hype generated by advertising agencies,” Passler explains. This is where labels can get misleading. Terms such as “light” and “enriched with” have specific, regulated meanings. However, others such as “natural” aren’t defined.
“Another analogy that I like to use is that the front of the package is akin to the trailer to a movie,” Taub-Dix says. “It tells you a little glimpse of what you’re going to be seeing, but it doesn’t give you the whole picture. If you really want to know what you’re getting, then you need to flip the package over and look at the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list.”
To set the record straight on some common labels, we set out to define them.
Arguably the buzziest label yet, “natural” is not strictly defined. It currently stands as more of a selling point, decided on by each company. “‘Natural’ is often defined by individual manufacturers, but sugar is natural, salt is natural,” Taub-Dix points out. In short, don’t consider everything that claims to be natural very healthy. The USDA defines “natural” as foods that don’t contain artificial ingredients or preservatives. Yet, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and similar chemicals. So the regulations surrounding this label are super-lenient. The same goes for “all natural,” which the USDA doesn’t define. Therefore, it can’t be regulated. When you spot this term, it’s best to flip the package over and consult the nutrition and ingredients panel.
Low and Light/Lite
These labels also seem very buzzworthy. But, both “low” and “light” are specifically defined by the FDA and USDA. What complicates things is that they’re regulated differently for certain types of foods. When it comes to something marketed as low sodium, Taub-Dix explains that it contains 140 or fewer milligrams of sodium. On the other hand, foods marketed as low calorie need to have 40 calories or fewer per serving.
“Light” is similar in that way. When referring to something like sodium in soy sauce, the product has to have at least 50 percent less sodium per serving than a comparison food. This differs depending on the product. “But if you’re talking about oil, then ‘light’ olive oil basically means lighter color, lighter texture, and lighter flavor but same exact calories as regular thick, dark, rich-tasting olive oil,” Taub-Dix notes.
Fortified With and Enriched With
While these two terms may look interchangeable, they have slightly different meanings. “‘Fortified with’ means that you are adding nutrients to the food to boost the value,” Taub-Dix says. “It’s been nutritionally altered so that one serving provides at least 10 percent more of the daily values than the original version.” Similarly, foods that are “enriched with” nutrients means the nutrients were there to begin with, but they were removed at some point during processing and added back in. White bread, for example, has certain vitamins added back in after bleaching gets rid of them.
“Fortified” and “enriched” may remind you of processed food. But don’t peg these terms as a bad thing. “The way that I feel about these things is that they’re not all negative terms,” Taub-Dix says. “For example, a lot of enriched cereals and breads are very good sources of iron and B vitamins.”
No Sugar Added
If you’re watching your sugar intake, keep an eye out for this label. One of the trickier claims, it does not mean that the product has no sugar. “This label just means that additional sugar has not been added to the product. It’s not stating that the product is low-carb or low-sugar in the first place,” Passler explains. Take a can of sliced fruit, for example. It may have this label, but the fruit itself still contains sugar.
Processed is another label that isn’t always a bad thing. In its most basic form, it means that the food has gone through a physical or chemical process before being put on the shelf. “A lot of food activists say [to not] eat processed food,” Taub-Dix says. “What they don’t realize is that if you bought a carrot at the farmer’s market, brought it home, washed it, peeled it, and cut it up, you just processed it. Sometimes processed foods can even be richer in nutrients, like a canned tomato sauce versus a whole tomato. It can also be more digestible for us. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But foods that are highly processed and have a lot of additives are.”
Unlike labels, the government doesn’t always regulate certifications; specific organizations often oversee them. “A certification is something that is only given to products if they meet certain standards specific to that certification,” Seti says. “For example, if something is ‘certified organic’ or ‘certified pasture raised,’ that means it has met the requirements by the FDA and the USDA to be certified as such.”
These seals are often affixed to a package without much explanation. Find out what the most common ones mean below.
This straightforward label means that the food contains no monosodium glutamate—a salt-based flavor enhancer. Yet, while this additive has gotten a bad reputation, not everyone reacts badly. “Not everybody reacts negatively to MSG, and MSG does provide a lot of flavor for food. Instead of focusing on MSG, I’d focus on the amount of sodium in your diet in general,” Taub-Dix advises.
This certification is also to the point but doesn’t quite deserve its reputation. “Non-GMO” simply means there are no genetically modified organisms in the food. Whether GMOs are safe or harmful for us has been widely debated. However, most studies show that they’re harmless to consume. In fact, GMOs may help crops survive in areas where they originally couldn’t. “The majority of soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton that are grown in the United States are genetically modified,” Taub-Dix notes. Nonetheless, she informs us that the new nutrition labels will be required to say whether or not a product has GMOs.
USDA-certified organic foods are grown and processed abiding by federal guidelines that address a number of things. Soil quality, animal-raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives are all regulated. These products contain only natural substances and use physically, mechanically, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent.
Unbeknownst to most, the organic certification has four tiers. The first is “100 percent certified organic.” This means that each ingredient is certified organic, all processing aids used for the product are organic, and no GMOs or ionizing radiation were used. Following that is “organic,” which means that 95 percent of the food in that product is certified organic. It’s represented by the common green seal. The third tier is “made with organic ingredients,” which can be put on a product that has 70 percent organic ingredients. Lastly, when only certain ingredients in a food are certified organic, they can be listed as such on the back in bold so they’re easy to find.
This certification means exactly what it says—the product doesn’t contain any glutenous ingredients. However, it has gained what Taub-Dix calls a health halo. When many people think of gluten free, they think of a gluten-free diet (and, therefore, weight loss). But it was originally created to assist those with gluten allergies and diseases such as celiac.
“If you have a medical condition as serious as that or a certain allergy, then you need to check food labels regularly because sometimes manufacturers change the way that they process something,” Taub-Dix warns. Keep an eye out for foods that state they have been made on equipment shared with glutenous products (you’ll find this under the ingredients list).
Making It Easy
On top of familiarizing yourself with the labels and certifications, Taub-Dix highly recommends creating a shopping list. Grocery shopping shouldn’t make you feel worried or anxious. Having a set list of products you like and understand can take off the pressure of selecting healthy foods. Even if you go in blindly, don’t let the number of label claims deter you from enjoying a trip to the store. Just be mindful, and read the packaging before you purchase.