Here are some additional tips for deciphering food labels, provided by Stasha Hornbeck, a registered dietitian at Kaiser Permanente:
Reduced-fat peanut butter
Peanut butter is full of healthy fats. Look for the jars with oil on top or grind your own at the grocery store.
Fruit snacks and fruit-flavored foods may not actually have any real fruit in them, even though they have pictures of fruit on the boxes.
Often, “light” versions of products have artificial sweeteners.
Try adding fruit to plain yogurt, rather than purchasing yogurts that are already sweetened.
Unrealistic serving sizes
Serving sizes don’t always match up to how much you may eat. Use the nutrition label to do the math for a more realistic serving size.
Grocery shopping can be a chore. Throw in competing food companies with packages claiming products are "all natural" or "whole grain," and those trips to the store can be downright daunting.
Adding to the confusion are the lax regulations behind many of those claims, leaving consumers to guess what the words really mean. That's why experts recommend ignoring the label on the front and relying on the labels on the back.
"Don't bank on the words on the label," said Sandra Brown, food safety and nutrition expert at Washington State University Clark County Extension. "But look specifically at what's in the product."
One word that seems to cause the most confusion is grain, said Stasha Hornbeck, a registered dietitian at Kaiser Permanente.
Many bread and cereal packages claim the products are "whole grain" or "multigrain." The problem, Hornbeck said, is the claims don't ensure the product really is made with 100 percent whole grains.
Whole grains offer naturally occurring vitamins and minerals and pack a lot of fiber. Much of the mineral content is in the grain's outer hull and gets stripped away when refined, Hornbeck said.
Daily values based on a caloric intake of 2,000 calories:
• Total fat: 65 grams
• Saturated fat: 20 grams
• Cholesterol: 300 milligrams
• Sodium: 2,400 milligrams
• Total carbohydrates: 300 grams
• Dietary fiber: 25 grams
• Protein: 50 grams
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
If a food includes even the smallest amount of whole grains, it can claim to be "whole grain." To be sure the bread or cereal you're selecting really is made with mostly whole grains, check the ingredient list. The ingredient list is weighted, so the items at the top are more prevalent than those listed below.
"Make sure the first ingredient is whole-whatever: whole wheat, whole rye," Hornbeck said.
The same goes for the use of "multigrain."
"That just means it's made with more than one grain," Hornbeck said. "It doesn't necessarily mean any of them are whole."
You can also check the fiber content on the product's nutrition label. The more whole grains, the higher the fiber content, she said.
- Yes. I try to be as informed as possible when purchasing food. 60%
- Sometimes. I check labels on some items but not all. 25%
- I pay attention to nutrition labels but not ingredient lists. 6%
- Nope. If it tastes good, I buy it. 9%
115 total votes.
The word "natural" on a package can also be somewhat misleading.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture only regulates the use of "natural" on meat, poultry and egg products. And the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have an
official definition of what constitutes a "natural" product, but has "not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances," according to the agency website.
To determine whether a food really is "natural," Hornbeck again suggests looking at the ingredient list. Choose items that are made from whole foods — peanut butter with only peanuts and salt, for example — rather than processed foods, she said.
Another caution: Just because something is labeled "natural" doesn't make it healthy, Brown said. A premium ice cream, for example, can be "natural" and still be high in fat and calories, she said.
"Those definitions aren't interchangeable and they can be confusing," Brown said.
Food packaging with claims like "no cholesterol" or "no trans fat" often catch the eyes of shoppers. But sometimes, those claims are on foods that wouldn't have them to begin with.
For example, some sandwich bread and cracker packages include the "no cholesterol" claim. Cholesterol comes from animal products, so foods made with plant products wouldn't have cholesterol, anyway, Hornbeck said.
Rather than looking at what a product doesn't include — "no fat," "no cholesterol," "no sugar" — Hornbeck recommends looking at what it does include.
A "fat-free" cereal may be loaded with added sugar. A "sugar-free" coffee creamer likely has artificial sweeteners.
"We've all been conditioned that fat is awful for us and cholesterol is going to give us heart attacks," Hornbeck said.
But if the ingredients list is full of refined grains, added sugar and extra salt, the product may not be any better than the original version that includes a little bit of fat, Hornbeck said.
"Do you know if this is real food or has it just been processed to death?" she said.
Instead of relying on the label claims, try using the ingredient and nutrition labels to follow dietary guidelines, Brown said.
For example, if you're a diabetic and need to keep sugar consumption down, check the nutrition label for the total number of grams in the product rather than relying on "sugar free" or "reduced sugar" claims, she said.
"Companies need to market their items and if they know the buzz words, they're going to use them," Brown said. "I can't blame them for that, but it's misleading at the same time."