Nutrition Labels: Reading Your Way to a Healthier Lifestyle

Nutrition Labels

Sometimes, the proof is actually in the pudding. Since the 1970s, the FDA has required nutrition labels on most prepared foods. But many food companies use misleading claims in order to sell their products. With all of today’s health-related concerns to worry about, do you really know how to read nutrition labels?

Organic, GMOs, buying local:  these are just some of the things to take in to consideration while strolling the aisles of your grocery store. In a recent study by the USDA, 42 percent of working adults between ages 29-68 look at nutrition labels while shopping. That’s an increase of 8 percent from a similar study conducted in 2007. But the majority of shoppers are still blind to what they are consuming.

Many products feature attractive terms, like “multigrain,” “all-natural,” and “low fat,” which can distract consumers from the more harmful ingredients. There are a number of ways to decipher what exactly you are eating.

  1. Multigrain does not equal whole grain.

Many shoppers may see a “multigrain” claim on their breads, snack food, and pastas and immediately think they are making the healthier choice. Or they may think that these terms are interchangeable. Multigrain often means the grain has been refined, which can cause it to be stripped of its nutrients. A whole grain means that all of the grain is present: bran, wheat germ, and endosperm, which provide naturally occurring nutrients and fiber. Another label to avoid is bread that says “five grain,” as there is no guarantee you are getting the complete grain and all of its benefits.

The solution? Katherine Zeratsky, R.D, L.D., of the Mayo Clinic suggests looking at the label. “Look for products that list the first ingredient as ‘whole wheat,’ ‘whole oats,’ or a similar whole grain.”

  1. All natural means nothing.

The FDA has yet to define the word “natural,” as it relates to food. This means that companies can slap that label on pretty much anything they choose. For example, many peanut butters brag about “all-natural” ingredients, but on the label you’ll find sugar and palm oil among other things. Sugar overconsumption is a large problem facing Americans today and palm oil contains saturated fats as well as having been linked to raising cholesterol.

Instead of falling for this commonly-used claim, again turn to the label for your answer. Kristin Kirkpatrick of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute suggests natural foods really contain only one ingredient, such as just peanuts in a jar of peanut butter.

  1. Low in this, high in that.

Another popular claim used by food companies is “low fat,” “lower sodium,” or “less calories.” According to the FDA, a food has to have 25 percent less of something (sugar, calories, fat, etc.) for it to assert itself to be “lower.” This doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy, it just means it has less sugar, or salt, than the normal product has. One tactic to make a food still taste appetizing when they decrease one thing is to increase the others. For example, a product may lower its sugar and in turn increase its salt.

Forgo the flashy claims and read the label. Some studies correlate label readers as being healthier in general. A 2012 study revealed that Minnesota college students who read nutrition labels were also healthier eaters. The good news is that the FDA is taking notice as well, stating that updated nutrition label requirements are a priority this year. Citizens for Health has also declared April 11, 2014 as “Read Your Labels Day,” encouraging Americans to educate themselves on packaged foods.

By Nathan Rohenkohl


USDA Newsroom


US News

Mayo Clinic

National Center for Biotechnology Information

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