Interpreting Food Packaging Claims

Beware the Tricky Serving Size

The USDA nutrition label lists calories before any other nutrition data; however, pay special attention to the serving size and servings per container first. The calories in one serving may seem low, but if the serving size is 1 cup and you eat the whole package—2 cups—you’ve doubled the calories. Many food manufacturers use these tricky labeling practices to make a food seem lower calorie than it actually is; a snack-sized bag of chips may contain 2 servings, or a 20-oz bottle of soda contains 2.5 servings, for example.  But for most eaters, one entire package is eaten in one sitting, regardless of how many “servings” the label claims it contains.  If you have a hard time controlling portions, experts recommend measuring out a serving onto a plate or into a bowl rather than eating straight from the container.  That way, when your portion is up, you won’t be tempted to keep on eating.

Understanding Fats

Nutritional information on the label highlights the percentage of calories that come from fat. According to the University of Colorado’s Health Center, “Anywhere from 20% to 30% of calories consumed throughout the day should come from fat.” If nutrition info says over 30% of the calories come from fat, consider avoiding that food.

Check the nutritional information for type of fat. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “The total amount of fat you eat, whether high or low, isn’t really linked with disease. What really matters is the type of fat you eat.” Choose unsaturated fats—the good fats—that are liquid at room temperature. such as olive or vegetable oil, or those found in raw nuts or seeds.

Saturated fats are dietary fats that contribute to elevated cholesterol and clogging of the arteries. “In the United States and other developed countries, saturated fats come mainly from meat, seafood, poultry with skin, and whole-milk dairy products (cheese, milk, and ice cream),” say experts at the Harvard School of Public Health. Most saturated fats are solid at room temperature, like butter, lard, palm oil and coconut oil.  By law, food labels must list the amount of saturated fat their product contains, so look for the number listed under fats on the label.  Health guidelines recommend having no more than 7-10% of your daily calories come from saturated fat, which for most people means a maximum of 15-20g of saturated per day.

Trans fats—which are listed on an ingredient list as partially-hydrogenated oil—are artificially-created solid fats that have even worse health effects than saturated fats because not only do they raise “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, but they also lower heart-protective “good” (HDL) cholesterol.   Experts recommend consuming no more than 1% of total calories from trans fats per day, which means a maximum of 1-2g of trans fats per day for most people.  Many fast foods are fried in trans fat, some margarines contain it, and many commercially-baked cakes, cookies and pastries contain it as well.  By law, food labels must list the amount of trans fat their product contains, so look for the number listed under fats on the label.  But there’s a loophole: if a product contains less than a half gram of trans fat per serving (like 0.4g per serving), food manufacturers are allowed to claim it has zero grams of trans fat.  Even more confusing is that often manufacturers of such foods will make labeling claims that their product contains “Zero grams trans fat per serving,” which does not necessarily mean that the product contains zero grams of trans fat, period.  Since most of us tend to consume more than one “serving” of a food at any given time, we may be unknowingly eating a gram or more of trans fats from such foods, and exceeding the recommended limit.  So how can you tell if a product contains trans fat if manufacturers are allowed to employ these misleading label claims?  You’ve got to read the ingredient list.  If you see the words “partially-hydrogenated” anywhere on that list, the product DOES contain trans fat and you should look for a trans fat-free alternative.

What Does This Packaging Claim Mean?

Sugar free. Less fat. Low cholesterol. Reduced sodium. Light. These claims seem to imply a product is somehow healthy, but what do they really mean?

  • ‘Sugar-free’ and ‘fat-free’ both mean less than 0.5 grams of that nutrient per serving.
  • A food labeled “Low” in something must meet specific guidelines. “Low-fat” food means no more than 3 grams of fat per serving, “low-sodium” means no more than 140 milligrams sodium per serving, and “low-calorie” means no more than 40 calories per serving.
  • A food labeled as having “Less” of something means 25% less than a comparable product. For example, a pretzel might claim to have “25% less fat” than potato chips.
  • Similarly, “reduced” indicates at least 25% of sugar, fat, cholesterol, sodium, or calories has been removed from a standard version of that product.   For example, a “reduced fat” version of potato chips may contain 25% less fat than standard potato chips … but it doesn’t mean it’s a low-fat food.  Similarly, a broth or bouillon claiming to be “reduced sodium” may indeed have 25% less sodium than the original version, but is very likely still a high-sodium food. Its important to look at the actual numerical value of the nutrients themselves anytime you see a “reduced” claim, because the claim means very little on its own.
  • “Light” indicates the food contains a third fewer calories or half the fat compared to a standard version of the product.  It does not necessarily mean that the product is a low-fat or low-calorie food.
  • “High fiber” means a food contains 5g of fiber or more per serving.  If you want to be sure you’re getting the type of fiber that has been shown in research to have health benefits, look for foods that are naturally rich in fiber due to their content of whole grains, bran, oats, beans, fruit or vegetables.  Many food manufacturers have started loading their products–like breakfast cereals, snack bars and even juices– up with ingredients such as “inulin” (aka chicory root fiber), maltodextrim and polydextrose to meet the standards for a “high fiber” packaging claim.  While these ingredients technically qualify as “fiber,” they have not yet been shown to have the same health-beneficial properties as natural sources of food fiber, so you may not be getting all of the benefits you think you are if you rely exclusively on such products to meet your daily fiber goals of 25g for women and 38g for men.

These are just a handful of the countless claims you’re likely to encounter when grocery shopping, and it can be very confusing.  A good rule of thumb is that the more health claims a packaged food makes, the less likely it is to actually be healthy.  A long ingredient list is also a red flag for an unhealthy, processed food masquerading as health food.  The healthiest foods are the ones that don’t come in packages (and therefore make no health claims): fresh fruits and vegetables.  And among those healthy foods that do come in packages, their ingredient lists are blissfully short: whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, plain low-fat dairy, frozen fruits and vegetables without sauces, fresh lean meats and fish.

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1 Comment

  •   I only order food where I can see the calories. If the menu does not have the calories, I have to use and hope it has the calories.  It has a huge database of menus items and calories.  I’ve become sensitive to the number of daily calories v. the amount of daily exercise.

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