When you see words like “natural,” or “good source of…” on food labels, do you ever wonder what it really means?
The FDA regulates food labels and has many, many rules that are probably too complex (and hard to remember) for the average consumer, but that doesn’t stop the food industry from exploiting these to their advantage. Here’s how to avoid being deceived.
There are some things on a label that are legitimate and monitored by the FDA as approved. For example, nutrient content claims that have the word “Free,” “Low,” or “Reduced/Less” when talking about calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar (except “low sugar,” which is not allowed) have a specific meaning. It depends on the nutrient, but for “reduced/less” it generally means 25% less than a comparable product. On the other end of the spectrum, words like “high” (meaning a food contains at least 20% of the daily value) or “good source” (which means it contains 10-19% of the daily value) are also allowed but only for nutrients that have a specific % daily value.
Also, qualified health claims are allowed and include things like “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts [such as name of specific nut] as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” There is a list of specific nutrients/disease claims listed by the FDA that are allowed, and there is a whole list. But in general, if you see the type of wording used above you can safely assume it’s legit.
Some sneaky things to watch out for on labels: trans fat can be listed as 0 grams, as long as it has less than 0.5 grams per serving. The daily limit is 2 grams, so you could get 0.49 grams (almost 25% of your daily limit!) even when the nutrition facts say “0 grams.” The best way to determine what’s really in a product is to read the ingredient list, and look for words like “partially hydrogenated” because that means you are getting trans fat, even if it says 0 grams on the nutrition label.
You should also look at the ingredient list for items that are actually just different names for sugar, like words ending in “-ose” such as sucrose, dextrose, etc. Things that say syrup are also sugar, even if it’s brown rice syrup (the brown rice part of it sounds healthy, right?). But it’s just sugar. Since labels are required to list the ingredients in order of how much is in the food, with the first ingredient being the most, it is to the food company’s advantage to have multiple sources of sugar, so that those multiple sources can be listed later on the list, rather than one big source of sugar being listed first.
As for the word “natural,” the FDA hasn’t yet decided what it means! The FDA is currently accepting public comments on whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,” if so, how it should be defined and how the term should it be used on food labels. They started accepting comments and will continue accepting comments until February 10, 2016.