The Skinny – Behind the Labels

food-label-claimsThe scenario – The beef in your cart says “extra lean”, the yogurt says “fat free”, the cheese says “Lite” and the gummy snacks say “sugar free” and the pasta says it’s “high fiber”. What does it all really mean? Here it is in lay-mans terms.

“Extra Lean”

Meat, poultry, or seafood labeled “extra lean” must meet strict requirements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Every 100-gram serving (about 3.5 ounces) must have fewer than 5 grams of total fat, fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat, and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. That amounts to a pretty small dent in your total daily fat allowance, which is about 55 grams if you eat 2,000 calories a day and get 25 percent of your calories from fat. FS_STOP_S.T.O.P__23399.1332884842.1000.1000 (If you are trying to lose weight, keep in mind the requirements for a 2000 calorie a day diet MAY NOT APPLY. So 55 grams of fat may be out the window and it may be more like 35 or 40 grams for your daily allowance)

Smart shopping tip: If you’re cutting back on fat, extra-lean products are a better choice than those labeled “lean,” which can contain up to twice as much total fat (10 grams) and saturated fat (4.5 grams) per serving, with the same maximum amount of cholesterol.

“Low Fat” or “Reduced Fat”

Foods labeled “low fat” are required by the FDA to deliver fewer than 3 grams of fat per serving. “Reduced fat” means the food must contain at least 25 percent less fat than the original form.

Smart shopping tip: Low or reduced fat isn’t always the no-brainer option. Sometimes there are nutritional trade-offs: Reduced-fat peanut butter, for example, may contain more sodium and sugar to boost flavor. Compare the nutrition facts before you buy. (It often means chemical shit-storm too so buyer beware) “Made With Real Fruit”

“Real fruit” doesn’t always mean whole fruit. It might also mean fruit extract or juice, which could contain fewer nutrients or more sugar than the whole fruit does. And there aren’t any rules for how much of it needs to be in a box of toaster pastries, cereal bars, or other food for the package to carry this claim.

Smart shopping tip: The only way to figure out the amount of whole fruit in a product is to examine the order of the ingredients. Contents are listed in order of volume, so don’t be impressed unless fruit—not fruit juice—is in the first three ingredient.

Serving Size

This number is at the top for a reason: The nutritional information on the rest of the label applies to one serving. The FDA sets serving sizes for all foods―they are measurements, not recommendations. Total calories are calculated per serving, as are total calories from fat, so be sure to look at the servings per container. A bag of potato chips might say it has 150 calories per serving, but the entire bag might be three servings, or 450 calories.

Percent of Daily Value
This is calculated for a moderately active woman, or a fairly sedentary man, who eats 2,000 calories a day. (Highly active women, moderately active men, and growing teen boys may need closer to 2,500 calories a day.) A serving of Cheerios with ½ cup of skim milk gives the average adult just 3 percent of the daily value of fat intake and 11 percent of the daily value of fiber intake recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

More important than total fat are the numbers for saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. You want to see that the food contains relatively little saturated fat and trans fat, and relatively more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Keep in mind that “fat-free” doesn’t equal “calorie-free.” Many fat-free and low-fat foods have added sugar.

This is a fat-like chemical that’s an essential component of cell membranes, a covering for nerve-cell fibers, and a building block of hormones. Only animal products contain cholesterol. Adults are advised to limit their daily intake to 300 milligrams. Too much can elevate your blood cholesterol, raising your heart-disease risk.

The recommended daily limit for an average adult is 2,300 milligrams; too much sodium can cause high blood pressure. By the USDA’s reckoning, a food is low in sodium if it contains no more than 140 milligrams. FS_STOP_S.T.O.P__23399.1332884842.1000.1000 (A serving of Cheerios has 210 milligrams and is therefore not low in sodium.) A single serving of soup or a frozen dinner may contain 1,000 milligrams or more of sodium, which is nearly half the daily limit.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Reading a Food Label

Until you become accustomed to reading food labels, it’s easy to become confused. Avoid these common mistakes when reading labels:

A label may say that the food is reduced fat or reduced sodium. That means that the amount of fat or sodium has been reduced by 25% from the original product. It doesn’t mean, however, that the food is low in fat or sodium. For example, if a can of soup originally had 1,000 milligrams of sodium, the reduced sodium product would still be a high-sodium food.

Don’t confuse the % DV for fat with the percentage of calories from fat. If the % DV is 15% that doesn’t mean that 15% of the calories comes from fat. Rather, it means that you’re using up 15% of all the fat you need for a day with one serving (based on a meal plan of 2,000 calories per day).

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the amount of sugar on a label means that the sugar has been added. For example, milk naturally has sugar, which is called lactose. But that doesn’t mean you should stop drinking milk because milk is full of other important nutrients including calcium. What you can do is look at the list of ingredients. If you see the words high-fructose corn syrup or sugar high on the list of ingredients, it probably means refined sugar has been added to the product.

A common mistake people make, especially with packages dispensed from vending machines, is to assume that a small item contains one serving just because the package is small. If you eat a bag of pretzels from a vending machine, for example, you may find that it contains 2.5 servings. So you need to multiply the numbers by 2.5 to figure out how many calories and the amount of sodium and other nutrients you are eating.

Reading Label Lingo

In addition to requiring that packaged foods contain a Nutrition Facts label, the FDA also regulates the use of phrases and terms used on the product packaging. Here’s a list of common phrases you may see on your food packaging – and what they actually mean.

No fat or fat free: Contains less than 1/2 gram of fat per serving (watch out most canned goods have 2.5 servings and boxed goods 4 or more)

Lower or reduced fat: Contains at least 25 percent less per serving than the reference food. FS_STOP_S.T.O.P__23399.1332884842.1000.1000 (An example might be reduced fat cream cheese, which would have at least 25 percent less fat than original cream cheese.) Regular Cream Cheese 29 grams of fat and Reduced Fat / Light Cream Cheese 22 grams of fat.

Low fat: Contains less than 3 grams of fat per serving

Lite: Contains 1/3 the calories or 1/2 the fat per serving of the original version or a similar product.

FS_STOP_S.T.O.P__23399.1332884842.1000.1000 Regular Cream Cheese 291 Calories for 3oz Reduced Fat / Light Cream Cheese 195 Calories for 3oz so keep in mind that better than the regular doesn’t mean a free for all!

No calories or calorie free: Contains less than 5 calories per serving

Low calories: Contains 1/3 the calories of the original version or a similar product

Sugar free: Contains less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving

Reduced sugar: at least 25% less sugar per serving than the reference food

No preservatives: Contains no preservatives (chemical or natural)

No preservatives added: Contains no added chemicals to preserve the product. Some of these products may contain natural preservatives

Low sodium: contains less than 140 mgs of sodium per serving

No salt or salt free: Contains less than 5 mgs of sodium per serving

High fiber: 5 g or more per serving (Foods making high-fiber claims must meet the definition for low fat, or the level of total fat must appear next to the high-fiber claim)

Good source of fiber: 2.5 g to 4.9 g. per serving

More or added fiber: Contains at least 2.5 g more per serving than the reference food

With some Nutrition-Facts practice, you’ll be able to quickly scan a food label and learn how the food fits into your nutrition and diet for the day.


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