Labels are supposed to make foods easier to buy. Or so they say.
Often, they just add to the confusion.Take, for example, the case of peanut butter. "No cholesterol," boasts some labels.
But peanut butter never had cholesterol.
Here's another one. You pick up some cereal - we'll call it Miniature Chocolate Doughnut Sugar-Coated Yummies. A flashy red band wrapped around the box screams, "Natural!"
And, naturally, you equate that with "healthy" and "good for you." But buyer beware. There are no government regulations on the use of such words as "natural." (And really, have you ever come across an "unnatural" food?)
Ditto for the word "light."
"Light can refer to texture or color," said Sharon Hoelscher-Day, home economist with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Phoenix. "Sometimes, light can mean a smaller serving size." It can also mean "lighter" in salt. Or even thinner, as in the case of potato chips.
Jayne Newmark, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and director of nutrition services at the Arizona Heart Institute, said what the association would like to see is some standardization in what terms mean.
"Food manufacturers want to make products as desirable as possible," Newmark said. "But we would like them to be standard across the board."
The American Dietetic Association has suggested that food labels be uniform and contain the following information:
A listing of total calories, protein, total fat, saturated fat and unsaturated fat, cholesterol, total carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates, total dietary fiber and sodium.
Serving sizes expressed in common household measures and standardized portions.
For foods requiring additional ingredients before serving, the labels should give nutrition information for the food as consumed, not simply as packaged.
Ingredients listed in descending order by weight with full disclosure of important nutrients.
Easy-to-read typefaces and a standardized format.
The federal government is pretty much heading in those directions. The Food and Drug Administration currently has a proposal aimed at standardizing serving sizes.
Newmark refers to one confusing example of serving sizes in juice containers that cite a serving at 100 calories and then claim the container has 1.4 servings.
The FDA is also looking at a recommended daily intake (instead of allowance) of 26 vitamins and minerals for five groups, including adults and children older than 4, children younger than 4, infants, pregnant women and lactating women.
The FDA is proposing the establishment of recommended daily values for eight food components considered important to the maintenance of good health. Those would include fat, saturated fatty acids, unsaturated fatty acids, cholesterol, carbohydrates, fiber, sodium and potassium.
"I think most Americans have something to watch, whether it be sugar, fiber, iron, calcium or their weight," Newmark said.
Unfortunately, not all labels contain the same information. And not all people interpret label "buzz" words the same. Take for example "low fat."
"Low fat doesn't always mean low in calories because food can be high in calories and low in fat," Newmark said. Low fat can also mean "lower in fat" than its counterpart. An example of that are the low-fat cheeses. No cheese is actually low in fat. But some are lower than others.
"Sometimes, you'll see something labeled `98 percent fat free,' " Newmark said.
Watch out. That can be misleading as the 98 percent can relate to weight rather than calories. An example of this would be milk. While the fat may make up 50 percent of the calories, by weight that fat only makes up 2 percent of the volume. This same tactic is also sometimes used with refrigerated cold cuts. "When something says, `No cholesterol,' it can be high in saturated fat and that raises cholesterol," Newmark said. "Peanut butter, or shortening or non-dairy creamer can say `no cholesterol' but can be rich in saturated fat."
Which leads to another common misconception. "Americans think the word `vegetable' means good for you," Newmark said. But many vegetable oils are saturated fats, such as palm oil and cocoa butter.
"They don't contain cholesterol themselves, but they all raise cholesterol. Saturated fat is twice as potent as cholesterol itself," Newmark said.
Consequently, Newmark warns consumers to be wary of labels that read "no cholesterol" or "vegetable oil." It may be worth your while to check further.
"I think Americans have always been interested in food labels, but they couldn't understand them," Newmark said.
Not that there aren't some government regulations on claims now. The following are some of the claims that are regulated. The information was supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Products making sodium claims must show the milligrams of sodium per serving on the label:
- Sodium-free - Less than 5 milligrams per serving.
- Very low sodium - 35 milligrams or less per serving.
- Low-sodium - 140 milligrams or less per serving.
- Reduced-sodium - 75 percent or greater reduction than regular product.
- Unsalted, without added salt.
- No salt added, no salt added during processing of a food normally made with salt.
The USDA regulates label claims for the amount of fat in meat and poultry products:
- Extra lean - No more than 5 percent fat by weight.
- Lean, low-fat - No more than 10 percent fat by weight.
- Light ("lite"), leaner, lower fat - 25 percent or greater reduction in fat from comparable products.
Meat or poultry products making these claims must declare the total grams of fat on the label. These definitions don't apply to ground beef, however. Ground beef is made from a variety of cuts; the fat content can vary from 16 percent to 28 percent.
Here are what current claims for cholesterol mean:
- Cholesterol-free - 2 milligrams or less per serving.
- Low-cholesterol - 20 milligrams or less per serving.
- Reduced-cholesterol - 75 percent or greater reduction than the regular product.
STARCH, SUGAR AND FIBER
Starch, sugar and fiber are all carbohydrates. While total carbohydrates must be given on nutrition labels, manufacturers do not have to break them out further. Some manufacturers, however, do break out the carbohydrates - cereals are a good example. You might be surprised to learn how much total sugar is in cereals that don't list "sugar" as their primary ingredient.
Lower calorie claims are standardized as follows:
- Low-calorie - No more than 40 calories per serving.
- Reduced-calorie - At least one-third fewer calories than the regular product.