The Truth About Labels

Every item in the grocery store claims to be “low in,” “free of” or “good for” . . . something. This makes it difficult to separate the healthy stuff from the waistline wreckers. Use this encyclopedia to learn what the most misleading food labeling claims really mean.

Lightly Sweetened

A frequently abused claim with no formal definition, this appears most often in the cereal aisle, and many of the boxes it adorns are actually loaded with various sweeteners. Need proof? Look at Kellogg’s Smart Start. It claims to be “lightly sweetened,” yet it has more sugar per cup than a full serving of Oreo cookies!

Good Source Of . . .

This packaging claim is of slightly less importance than “excellent source of.” It means that the product contains between 10 and 19 percent of your daily requirement for the mentioned nutrient. In other words, you would have to eat between 5 and 10 servings to get your full day’s value.

Reduced Fat

Splashed across too many packaged goods to count, this term means that the total fat grams have been reduced by at least 25 percent. Sounds great, right? Problem is, that reduction in fat often comes with an increase in sugar and sodium and, ultimately, no net nutritional gain to speak of. 

Multigrain

This simply means that more than one type of grain was used in processing (e.g., wheat, rye, barley, and rice). It doesn’t, however, make any claim about the degree of processing used on those grains. Also, beware of the equally ambiguous “wheat bread,” a claim that simply means the loaf was made from wheat flour, which might very well be refined and colored with molasses to appear darker.  The only trustworthy claim for whole grains is “100 percent whole grain.”

Lightly Breaded

The phrase most restaurants use to distract diners from the fact that the food they’re about to eat has been rolled in flour, egg, and bread crumbs and let loose in a vat of bubbling fat. Doesn’t matter how light the breading is; it’s the oil part that will get you.

Natural

This term is used almost entirely at the discretion of food processors. With the exception of meat and poultry products, the USDA has set no definition and imposes no regulations on the use of this term, making it essentially meaningless.

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Complimentary

Usually attached to one of the following words: chips, bread, desserts, refills. In any case, the act of giving away low-cost, high-calorie foods is a common tactic restaurants use to add value to the “customer experience.” Remember, just because it’s free doesn’t mean it won’t cost you—these empty calories add up fast. 

Reduced Sodium

Used when the sodium level is reduced by 25 percent or more, regardless of the total amount. “Low sodium,” on the other hand, can be used only when the product contains no more than 140 milligrams per serving.

Trans Fat–Free

Food processors can make this claim so long as their product contains less than 0.49 gram of trans fat per serving. Considering the American Heart Association recommends capping daily intake at 2 grams, this is no small amount. So even if the label reads “0 g trans fat,” that’s no guarantee that you’re in the clear. Instead, read the ingredients list; if shortening or partially hydrogenated oil is listed, then you need to find another product.

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