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Food Labels Take A New Twist

Just when you learned how to decode the fat, calories and fibre content in your favorite products, new terms like whole grain and trans fat started appearing. Here's everything you need to know to grocery shop the healthy way. Until recently, food companies wanted you to pay attention to their products, the label would tout the favor ("It's the creamiest!") or the size ("Now 33% more!"), Today you're far more likely to see statements that promote the health benefits of the food - "Zero trans fats!"

"May reduce the risk of heart disease!" "Good source of antioxidants!"  Claims like these show op on everything from crackers to orange juice to cereal to chocolate. Studies show that we've actually come to depend on these promises when we're deciding what to buy. "We've found that 48 per cent of consumers actively look for nutrient content claims (like 'good source not fibre" arid 30 per cent look for health claims (like 'builds strong bones') on products", says Wendy, director of health and nutrition.

The reason why is simple: Healthy eating is on America's radar more than ever. "Twenty-five years ago, there was nothing required on food packaging to assist people in making smart choices," says Connie Crawley, extension nutrition and health specialist at the University of Georgia in Athens, US.

Even the current Nutrition Facts labels - the chart on the side or back of all packaged foods that includes calories, fat and sodium per serving - didn't become mandatory until 1990. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also set rules for health claims then, and has refined them over the years (most recently in 2003) as medical research has shown the benefits or risks of certain ingredients.

"While some claims can be tricky to decipher, overall these statements are helpful because they can make you aware of what's special health-wise about a food," says Connie. In general, the more you look beyond the big bold type and the more you make sure not to put too much stock in any one claim, the better off you'll be when you shop. To clear up the confusion, Shape asked experts in the US what they would do when faced with an aisle full of This-Is-Really-Good-for-You packaging. Here's what they want you to know:

When The Label Says "Made With Whole Grains"

Your should be sure a whole grain is first on the ingredients list. Look for whole-wheat flour or wholegrain oats, for instance. Whole grains have been a hot topic since 2005, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended, for the first time, that half your daily grain servings should be in the whole form.

That's because they provide fibre, phytochemicals and other nutrients that help reduce the risk of diseases like cancer and heart disease. Trouble is, the claim is appearing not just on whole-wheat bread and oatmeal, but on foods like pretzels, cookies and energy bars. In order to state "made with whole grains," a product need only have a whole grain somewhere in the ingredients list. It could still be made primarily of refined flour or loaded with sugar.

Watch out too for terms like "multigrain", "cracked wheat", "stoned wheat" and "bran"; these typically aren't whole-grain products. Though they aren't necessarily bad, you do need to be careful about their overall healthfulness. "Bran muffins are a good example," Connie says. "Not only does 'bran' not equal whole grain, but one muffin may have 5-10 grams of saturated fat and 400 calories. That's not much better than a donut:"

When The Label Says "Zero Trans Fat"

Your should check the saturated fat content. In January, the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat grams, which studies have shown increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, on Nutrition Facts labels. Knowing this, many manufacturers reformulated products to eliminate trans fat, but in doing so, some switched to primarily saturated fats, like palm oil. Although saturated fat is less harmful than trans, it hikes up cholesterol too.

Your daily saturated fat limit should be less than 20 grams if you're eating 2,000 calories a day; less than 15 if you're on a 1,500-calorie diet. Another twist: Products can legally claim to have no trans fat if they only contain trace amounts (0.5 grams or less per serving). That's not much, but if you munch on a lot of packaged products, trans fat can add up. So after you check the Nutrition Facts label for saturated fat, scan the ingredients list for partially hydrogenated oil (an alias for trans fat). There is no allowable limit for trans fat; experts say any amount is unhealthful.

When The Label Says "Helps Maintain..."

You should be cautious. First, while claims that a nutrient "helps maintain", "promotes", "builds" or "regulates" are supposed to be true, they are not evaluated for accuracy by the FDA. The words tell you a nutrient will help your body function normally, which in many cases, isn't much of a claim at all. Example: "contains antioxidants to help maintain healthy cells and tissues" - a promise so vague it's almost meaningless. 

However, not every "functional" claim is worthless. A calcium-fortified orange juice may put "calcium builds strong bones" on the package - a fact worth knowing even if the claim stops short of saying calcium reduces the risk of osteoporosis. Why would a manufacturer sidestep a full-on osteoporosis claim? That would need FDA approval and require wording that adhered to five FDA rules (for example, that dietary calcium doesn't help all age groups equally) - not exactly short and sweet.

When The Label Says "Low", "Reduced" Or "Free"

You should give that food preference. Typically used to refer to sugar, sodium or fat, it's a sign that the product is better for you than its regular version. These terms meet well-defined FDA standards. "Free" usually means there's less than half a gram of a given nutrient per serving. "Reduced" means there's at least 25 per cent less serving than in the manufacturer's regular version.

The meaning of "low" varies by nutrient: "Low sodium" products, for example, have 140 milligrams or less per serving; "low fat" 3 grams or less. Just don't think it means you can eat more than one portion. "A cookie that's low in fat, for example, is usually higher in sugar and may contain the same number of calories as its counterpart," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

When The Label Says "A Good Source Of..."

You should look beyond the clad. The terms "good" and "excellent," clearly defined by the FDA, accurately tell you which products are the best sources of specific nutrients. "Good source" means a food provides at least 10 per cent of the Daily Value (DV) for the nutrient named, while "excellent source" means you're getting at least 20 per cent of the DV. But these terms don't tell you anything about the food's overall nutritional quality, says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak.

"A fortified soft drink can be an 'excellent source' of vitamin C for instance, and still be high in sugar and calories." Another caveat about evaluating such claims: not all healthy products use them. "A brand-name yoghurt may have 'excellent source of calcium' on its package, for example, but the storebrand version right next to it may not use the claim and still be high in the mineral," says Connie.

Your two best moves to ensure you pick the healthiest product is first to balance the touted nutrient against calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar on the Nutrition Facts label, then compare similar products for the nutrient named, whether they each claim to be a "good" or "excellent" source.

When The Label Says "May Reduce The Risk Of Heart Disease"

You should believe it. Whether the condition is heart disease, cancer or osteoporosis, statements like this are backed by "significant scientific agreement," an FDA standard that indicates there's so much research to support the claim it's unlikely to be proved wrong. Just remember that no food is a panacea. Almost all "reduce the risk of" claims are true only if you eat a healthy diet overall.

And keep an eye out for qualifying phrases. One recent example: "Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove [emphasis added] that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease." Such "qualified" health claims have less solid science behind them.

You Turn To The Nutrition Facts Label. Now What?

Every nutrient lists a percentage of the Daily Value, but is 10 per cent DV for saturated fat a lot or little? According to the FDA, 5 per cent of DV for any nutrient is low and 20 per cent is high. Using those FDA rules, here's what to look for per serving (the suggested amount for sugar, which has no DV, is based on research for the World Health Organisation):

Look For:

  • Total Fat: 3g or less
  • Saturated Fat: 1g or less
  • Sodium: 120mg or less
  • Cholesterol: 15mg or less
  • Sugar: 3g or less
  • Fibre: 5g or more

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